DeSantis delivers big check for Walton County broadband, Northwest Florida Commerce Park

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Gov. Ron DeSantis made a brief appearance in the Walton County seat on Thursday to present county officials with checks for more than $1 million in state grants for infrastructure improvements.

The largest state grant to the county, a $625,000 outlay from the Rural Infrastructure Fund, will assist the ongoing effort to establish broadband access across the county. Rural Infrastructure Fund dollars are intended to facilitate projects aimed at encouraging job creation, boosting capital investment and making rural economies stronger and more diversified.

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The other grant, a $500,000 award from the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, will be used to fund roadway, water and sewer infrastructure improvements at the Northwest Florida Commerce Park at Woodlawn. The park, designed to accommodate industrial and commercial enterprises, is on U.S. Highway 331 south of DeFuniak Springs.

The Job Growth Grant Fund dollars will "help attract companies that will create more high-paying jobs in fields like modular homes and aircraft manufacturing," DeSantis said before oversized checks noting the grant dollars were presented to local officials.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a ceremonial check with Walton County Commission Chairman Trey Nick during Thursday's visit to DeFuniak Springs to announce $1.125 million in state infrastructure grants to the county.

Overall, according to DeSantis, state officials believe the infrastructure expansion at the industrial park "will end up supporting 1,000 jobs."

"Honestly, the money's great," DeSantis said of the Job Growth Grant Fund dollars coming to the county. But he added that one of the reasons the dollars were steered to Walton is the expected return on that investment.

"We think the impact is going to be far greater than the amount of investment that we're putting in," DeSantis said.

"I think we've got great opportunities to do more with manufacturing and building things in Florida," he said later.

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks about Florida job opportunities during a visit to DeFuniak Springs to announce $1.125 million in state infrastructure grants for Walton County.

The Rural Infrastructure Fund dollars will assist the county in reaching its goal of having broadband internet access available across the county by June of next year.

Federal dollars, too: Walton County gets large grant for Woodlawn industrial park

Walton officials in May 2020 signed a $3.5 million contract with WildStar Networks — then doing business as SOM1101, an Arizona-based firm — to install wireless broadband service across the county.

Since then, the company has been acquiring property, including easements allowing the use of some county-owned property, and erecting towers and equipment needed to provide the service.

Walton County Commission Chairman Trey Nick points to Gov. Ron DeSantis during DeSantis' visit to DeFuniak Springs to announce $1.125 million in grants for the county. At far left is Dane Eagle, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and to Nick's left is Enterprise Florida President and CEO Jamal Sowell.

Earlier this year, WildStar Networks began pre-registration for broadband service, which will be rolled out from the northern end of the county to its southern end over the coming months.

Dane Eagle, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, called the $500,000 job growth grant "a great win" for the county, and touted the $625,000 infrastructure grant for broadband service as a means to increase the county's current 51% of households with broadband.

"We all know we need to improve on that, (and) the county and the city and the EDA (Walton County Economic Development Alliance) here locally have committed to that," Eagle said. "We're happy to be a small part of that today."

Jamal Sowell, Florida's secretary of commerce and the president and CEO of Enterprise Florida Inc., told the crowd of local officials, economic development professionals and others who were on hand, "We have been working from day one — the governor, Dane and I — to ensure that Northwest Florida has the resources here to show the entire world why it's best for business." 

Dane Eagle, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (left) and Enterprise Florida President and CEO Jamal Sowell listen as Gov.r Ron DeSantis speaks during a visit to DeFuniak Springs to announce $1.125 million in state infrastructure grants to Walton County.

In other developments Thursday, DeSantis teased what he called "a pretty significant announcement next week on education."

"So stay tuned on that," hes said.

DeSantis' comment came after Walton County Schools Superintendent Russell Hughes told DeSantis, "We know the importance of our children being in school. ... (T)hat allows our families to work, allows our employees to work, and we appreciate your work with us as well."