Freeport is Ready for Takeoff
June 18, 2018 by Manny Chavez
With drive time “from Freeport to the beach” now reduced to about 20 minutes, the incentive to live “inland” is even more pronounced—and Freeport is BOOMING!
“The four-laning of Hwy 331 has been a really big deal, a really big improvement for folks here in Freeport,” says Freeport Mayor Russ Barley.
Recent statistics indicate that Walton County is the third fastest-growing county in all of Florida, and growth in Freeport is no small part of the boom.
“We have people moving here from all over the country and from our neighboring cities,“ continues Russ. “We have six subdivisions booming right now and businesses are wanting to locate here. We have several businesses moving into our Industrial Park including a brick-making company, an ice company, a construction material company, a restaurant and kitchen supply company, and Bad Byron’s Butt Rub. Business-wise, job-wise, convenience…all factor into our current boom.”
Probably the most evident sign of new business growth in Freeport is that of the Shoppes At Freeport, located just south of the intersection of Hwy 20 and Hwy 331. Having a modern grocery story like Publix and a Dairy Queen “in the hood” is indicative of things to come. Some of the other stores in the complex include a UPS store, Li’s Hot Wok Chinese Buffet, Hungry Howie’s Pizza, Aria Spa & Nails, Great Clips, and Di’Lishi, a Coffee, Yogurt and Smoothie Place. Construction has begun on an Ace Hardware Store with a McDonald’s and Waffle House soon to follow at the Shoppes.
Driven by a desire to see Freeport grow and to provide more opportunity for kids growing up in the community gave Russ the push he needed to get things hopping. Now into his second term as Mayor of Freeport, he is doing all he can to help kids settle in Freeport by offering jobs and future incentives to them that were just not available to him after graduating from high school.
“We have more community participation here now. I am the 11th mayor of Freeport and my father, Eugene, was the second. Although I never had political aspirations, I just wanted to make things better. I recall running out of copy paper and ink for my printer several years ago and I had to drive all the way to DeFuniak Springs to get these two items. I just thought, ‘why?’ Our business community is growing by leaps and bounds and, thanks to our City Planner, Latilda Hughes-Neal, we are planning wisely for Freeport’s future,” says Russ.
Another huge draw for moving to Freeport is the city’s multi-million-dollar regional sports complex located within the Hammock Bay community. The 60-acre complex provides multiple outdoor activity opportunities such as tennis courts, softball and baseball fields, batting cages, basketball courts, soccer fields, walking/jogging trails, t-ball fields, shuffleboard playgrounds, and disc golf.
Having grown up on the dirt roads in Freeport, where first through twelfth grades were all in one school (there are now three schools), one flashing light in the center of town (now they have three traffic lights), Russ can only smile thinking about the progress his city has made.
Even the old timers of the area, who once resisted change, are coming around to the convenience of the “new” Freeport. They had to see the changers first before they realized that they are now happy with the changes, that they can buy groceries and have more choices for eating out that are “just down the street.”
“The process that perspective businesses have to go through to establish themselves here is a pretty strict one,” explains Russ. “Our planning board and city planner make sure that all new businesses meet all their requirements. We need growth, but it has to be something that the community can live with. You don’t just come in here and set up shop,” emphasizes Russ.
The E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center east of Freeport on Hwy 20 continues to expand opportunities for research and education.
Freeport’s growth will be mostly along the Hwy 331 corridor. Although business growth is important, the number one priority is a comprehensive plan to work on Freeport’s infrastructure, especially along Hwy 331. Russ is currently working on obtaining grants for sewer facility improvements to allow for future growth.
“We need to have all this in place before people and businesses come here. We want to keep our ‘hometown’ atmosphere as we head into the future. We’re centrally located to everything and are doing our best to be smart about our buildup.”
One thing for sure…Russ no longer has to leave Freeport to pick up his business supplies!