2022 in Gulf County will likely be remembered as a return to normalcy for those living there.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which had shuttered local businesses and forced everyone to maintain distance from their friends, family and neighbors, came to a sort of end, with the president declaring the pandemic over in September.
And 2022 saw many major improvements in the county’s reconstruction following Hurricane Michael, which devastated the area in 2018.
At the Port St. Joe High School’s class of 2022 graduation in the school’s gymnasium, Gulf District Schools Superintendent Jim Norton said “It’s hard to imagine that on October 10, 2018, there were 45 people that evacuated to this building and watched the dome, the library vacillate and almost come apart,” he said. “And no sooner than the kids all got back after Hurricane Michael, they went straight into a global pandemic.”
“Tonight, I am honored to say, I think this is the first normal graduation we have all been a part of in four years.”
This year certainly saw its fair share of noteworthy events.
A longtime county commissioner was voted back into office after 12 years of not serving on the board, only to pass away before he was able to formally take his oath of office for the position.
Billy Traylor, who served more than two decades on the Board of County Commissioners, with the county’s Tourism Development Coalition and as the Mayor of Wewahitchka, was remembered by hundreds at a funeral service held at the First Pentecostal Church in Wewahitchka in November.
Two major wildfires broke out at opposite ends of the county this year. The first, which occurred near the county’s northwest corner, burned more than 33,000 acres before it was extinguished in March. The second burned more than 120 acres in a residential area of Indian Pass in October.
Wewahitchka has been involved in a series of lawsuits following their termination of the contractor for their new fire station in January, and Port St. Joe and the county spent months negotiating the terms of the city’s purchase of the ESAD sewer system from its private owners with financial assistance from the county.
There have been plenty of uplifting events as well, such as the reopening of the Port St. Joe Marina, now named the Point South Marina.
The marina’s reopening had been long anticipated following the destruction of the landmark during Hurricane Michael.
Gulf County beaches saw an active sea turtle nesting season, with over 400 nests recorded by turtle patrol volunteers.
A major dune restoration project began at Indian Pass and is nearly complete, having completed the coastline along St. Joe Beach. Wewahitchka saw some noteworthy additions to its food scene, including the town’s Burger King, which was completed despite the strange circumstances that arose during its construction.
The local community has had its share of news in 2022, but some stories affected, engaged and caught the attention of readers more than others. Here is a look back at the Star’s top ten stories from this year, in no particular order.
Nopetro LNG courts potential plant in Port St. Joe
Tensions within the community, created in the aftermath of the shuttering of the St. Joe Paper Mill three decades ago, we’re stoked when it was learned a Miami-based liquified natural gas company was eyeing a lot in Port St. Joe for a small-scale plant and export terminal.
Proponents of the plant cite jobs that it would bring to the area, as well as a significant increase in both city and county tax revenue.
Opponents fear the plant may have unforeseen environmental impact and detrimental effects in a growing tourism industry in the area.
The company, Nopetro LNG, applied with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to be exempt from their jurisdiction. They were granted that application in March.
For more information, see The Star’s article “Tensions mount over proposed LNG plant” from Oct. 25.
Bertha Swamp Road Fire burns thousands of acres
More than 33,000 acres burned in a wildfire that began on privately owned property in northwest Gulf County in March.
The fire, which was named the Bertha Swamp Road Fire by the Florida Forest Service, burned for about two weeks. More than 70 tractor plow units and 10 areal units were deployed to help keep the flames in check. Evacuation orders were issued in Bay County, where the fire eventually spread.
The Bertha Swamp Road Fire, along with other large wildfires that occurred near Panama City around the same time, drew attention to the fire threat posed by debris that remain in the area from Hurricane Michael. State officials agrees to step up controlled burn efforts in the fire’s aftermath.
For more information, see The Star’s article “Over 33,000 acres burned” from March 17.
Traylor dies shortly after being reelected as county commissioner
Just three weeks after winning the election for Gulf County’s District 2 county commissioner seat, Billy Traylor passed away due to circumstances related to the treatment of his brain cancer.
Traylor, who had previously served more than two decades on the board of county commissioners, is remembered for being instrumental in many important developments in the county, including brining in the Gulf Correctional Institution after the closing of the paper mill.
Traylor’s seat on the board is now a vacancy, which will eventually be filled by a gubernatorial appointment, though an exact timeline for this process is unclear.
For more information, see The Star’s article “He was just an all-in guy” from Nov. 25.
Port St. Joe resurrects discussions surrounding the Field of Dreams
The city of Port St. Joe set aside $1 million in an attempt to resurrect a decade-old project to construct a sprawling sports and recreation facility near Gulf Coast State College.
The project, dubbed the Field of Dreams, has origins here.
It was resurrected after locals approached the board of city commissioners seeking to expand local recreational complexes.
A series of public meetings were held involving both the city and county, who have been unable to get on the same page regarding funding.
The city would like to begin construction on the project sooner rather than later, securing funding along the way. The county prefers the idea of having the project funded in full before beginning any construction. It would ultimately cost more than $7 million to complete the project as designed.
For more information, see The Star’s article “City, county meet to discuss new sports complex” from Aug. 31.
Wewahitchka involved in lawsuits surrounding incomplete firehouse
The city of Wewahitchka has been involved in a series of lawsuits following their termination of the contractor for their new fire station, Winterfell Constriction Inc., in January.
The city cited concerns over the pace of the project and the quality of the fire station’s construction when terminating their contract with Winterfell, which is owned by Bay County Commissioner Tommy Hamm.
Winterfell sued the city for breach of contract in April. Soon after, the city filed a counter suit.
Towards the end of the year, the bonding company overseeing the project opened lawsuits against both Wewahitchka and Winterfell. All three parties were said to be going into mediation earlier this month.
For more information, see The Star’s article “Former firehouse contractor files lawsuit against City of Wewahitchka” from May 3.
Infant remains discovered at construction site for Wewahitchka Burger King
Progress with the construction of the new Burger King in Wewahitchka stalled for several weeks after mummified infant remains were discovered on the property in late May.
Federal authorities spent several days conducting a thorough investigation of the lot, where they discovered additional remains belonging to the discovered infant. The remains were sent to south Florida to be tested for cause of death.
There has been no public release of the information from that examination, but authorities at the time stated that foul play was not suspected in the case.
For more information, see The Star’s article “Infant remains discovered at Wewa Burger King construction site” from May 31.
Beach erosion threatened structures on Cape San Blas
Erosion along Gulf County beaches, particularly those just north of the rocks on Cape San Blas poses a threat to waterfront properties, with some residents fearing a big enough storm would sweep the homes away.
The county applied for and was denied state funding to help address the issue, though they have indicated they would continue to apply for funding when additional opportunities arose.
Confusion arose from the threatened homeowners, who questioned why the county was unable to act in an emergency capacity while they were in the mist of repairing Hurricane Michael damaged dunes along other Gulf County beaches. Officials stated that the dune restoration project had taken years to secure the funding for.
For more information, see The Star’s article “Erosion on Cape San Blas created precarious situation for homeowners” from July 7.
North Port St. Joe redevelopment projects secure EPA funding
The North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition and Pioneer Bay CDC received almost $1 million in grants from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to help spur a decade-old redevelopment plan. The plan involves cleaning up the area, introducing new businesses and creating sustainable job growth that allows locals to reap the benefits of redevelopment rather than being displaced.
Federal officials made several trips to the area during 2022 as a result of the awarded grants, where they stated they would continue to work with the organizations to secure more funding.
For more information, see The Star’s article “North Port St. Joe receives $850,000 in EPA grants” from May 24.
Rish Park reopens four years after storm
Florida’s only fully handicap accessible state park, located on Cape San Blas, reopened in February of this year, almost four years since it was damaged in Hurricane Michael.
The park, which was closed after Hurricane Michael left it badly damaged, spent years in disrepair – drawing criticism from disability advocates, who demanded in 2021 that positive change be made with its repairs.
The park’s reopening will be rolled out in phases, and not all of the park’s facilities have been opened back up to public use at this time. However, according to the park’s website, accessible amenities available to guests at this time include beach access, bay access, beach wheelchairs, outdoor shower and rinse stations, changing rooms and picnic facilities.
Disability rights activists touted the park’s reopening as an important move forward in the recovery from the storm.
For more information, see The Star’s article “Florida’s only fully wheelchair-accessible park reopens on Cape San Blas” from Feb. 11.
Prison hiring initiatives begin to see some success
The Gulf Correctional Institution experienced critical levels of understaffing this year, impacting prison functions and limiting the prison’s ability to curb an influx of contraband or send out adequate numbers of inmate work crews to assist with countywide maintenance projects.
But according to the prison’s warden, Scott Payne, the prison began to see an influx of new applicants towards the end of the year. He largely attributed this to statewide salary increases and a pilot program that allowed the prison to make hires ahead of the applicant’s completion of all their training.
The hiring upswing was so encouraging that Gulf County officials began to speak of the possibility of reopening the prison’s work camp, which was shuttered more than a year ago, in the coming years.
However, there still remains a large number of vacancies at the facility, and Payne said he did not foresee this coming in the near future.
For more information, see The Star’s article “Hiring efforts at Gulf C.I. begin to yield results” from Aug. 8.