Vernon Compton, director of The Longleaf Alliance Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership in Milton, is spearheading the local “Connecting Nature & Commerce” effort with hopes we’ll see a network of multi-modal trails like this one he’s walking through the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Gulf Breeze.
Vernon Compton, director of The Longleaf Alliance Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership in Milton, is spearheading the local “Connecting Nature & Commerce” effort with hopes we’ll see a network of multi-modal trails like this one he’s walking through the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Gulf Breeze.

With a strong focus on wellness, community service and economic development, Gulf Power is supporting a significant public project.

The company is helping to sponsor a public forum Monday, Sept. 26, and a two-day workshop, Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 27-28, called “Connecting Nature & Commerce: Developing Regional Trail Opportunities.”

Jeff Cole, an Environmental Affairs specialist who heads up the company’s Stewardship program, is on the project’s development team.

“We’re trying to build a multi-modal network of trails that connects places like the Blackwater River State Forest with the beaches and communities in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties,” Cole said.  “The benefit will be an economic gain for our counties. We’re hoping it will not only provide recreational opportunities, but become a commuting trail people can use to go to stores and work.

Once developed, the trails will make it easier for people to ditch their vehicles and access natural areas, shop, go to work or school, or visit attractions while getting some fresh air and exercise.

The Conservation Fund, based in Arlington, Virginia, is leading the local effort along with the Andalusia, Alabama-based Longleaf Alliance, the biking and hiking communities, and other public and private partners who have been working on the vision and foundation of the project for years.  The public forum and workshops are meant to help organizers hammer out the blueprint of walkable, bikeable trails.

They’ve recruited the help of Dan Burden, who has been recognized as one of the top 10 champions of change in transportation and named by “Time Magazine” as one of the six most important civic innovators in the world. He’s also personally helped 3,500 communities throughout the world create multi-modal networks.

“The Conservation Fund focuses on protecting natural resources but they also focus on parks and trails and ways to tie the natural world to the economic vitality of the community,” said Vernon Compton, director of the Longleaf Alliance Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership in Milton, who is a major player in the project.

Visit Pensacola and Santa Rosa County Tourism Development Council are stakeholders in the project because these types of trail systems in other communities are huge tourist attractions, Compton pointed out.

“It would put our area on the radar screen of biking tours and other eco-tourism companies,” Compton said. “When people visit a place, they want more than a quarter of a mile of trail. They want to bike long distances. And where we start losing people is when they are older and younger and don’t want to get out on the roads to ride.”

There are already multi-use and bike trails in place from which to build the network, such as the Blackwater Heritage State Trail in Milton, the Gulf Islands National Seashore trail in Gulf Breeze and on Santa Rosa Island and numerous bike lanes around the region, Compton said. The project will benefit from the new Pensacola Bay Bridge dedicated pedestrian lanes, he said.

“Colorado is a perfect example of a state that’s created this type of connectivity,” Compton said. “If anyone can take advantage of this, it’s our region with our mild weather and ability to get outdoors year-round.”

He’s excited about the momentum the public forum and workshops will create to rally public support. And he’s thankful for the support the project has garnered.

“This conference could not occur without the support of Gulf Power and other sponsors,” Compton said. “It’s that whole idea of believing in improving the community and being a part of the community. That’s what Gulf Power does.”

If you Go:

Opportunities to learn about the “Connecting Nature & Commerce” and have your ideas heard:

  • Walking Tour on Active Transportation: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25. Meet at the center of Historic Plaza Ferdinand and walk down Palafox and Government streets. Contact Christian Wagley.
  • A Talk on Healthier Communities through Active Transportation: Anyone who has an interest in the project is encouraged to attend the public forum 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, at the Pensacola Library, 239 N. Spring Street. Light food and beverages will be served. Please RSVP.
  • Workshop: A few spots are available for the two-day workshop, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, Sept. 27-28, which costs $85. Sign up.
  • For more information, contact: Vernon Compton at vernon@longleafalliance.org or 850-623-0987; or Margarita Carey at mcarey@conservationfund.org or 304-876-7924.