“We didn't know when we started this that the DEP wants to run the trail all the way from Pensacola to Panama City.”

OKALOOSA ISLAND — The economic benefits of an Okaloosa Island link to the so-called Great Northwest Coastal Trail Corridor would be enormous, says Dave Hancock.

Hancock is the immediate past president of the Okaloosa Island Leaseholders Association. The group has about 300 members and began urging Okaloosa County officials to look into a multi-use path on the island more than two years ago.

When completed, the Great Northwest Coastal Trail Corridor planned by the state Department of Environmental Protection would be a 263-mile-long path for bicyclists and other non-motorists. It would run through eight counties, between Perdido Key near Pensacola and Bald Point State Park south of Tallahassee.

“We didn’t know when we started this that the DEP wants to run the trail all the way from Pensacola to Panama City” and beyond, Hancock said.

“What better place to ride your bike than along the Emerald Coast, with the most beautiful beaches in the world?” he added.

So far, the Coastal Trail Corridor is 73 miles long, with the longest stretch crossing most of Walton County and into eastern Okaloosa County.

“There are a ton of bicyclists on our multi-use paths,” Walton County spokesman Louis Svehla said.

Another developed section of the corridor runs from near the west end of Bay County to Panama City.

Undeveloped and still unfunded parts of the trail include the 26-mile gap between Destin and Navarre, areas east and west of Pensacola and a more than 100-mile area between Panama City and Bald Point State Park. Funding sources include state, federal and local governments.

The Okaloosa County Commission in June approved paying $102,169 in bed-tax revenue to HDR Engineering Inc. of Pensacola to provide surveying and preliminary engineering and environmental services for a possible new link to the corridor.

With approval from the Air Force and Florida Department of Transportation, the roughly 5-mile path would cross Okaloosa Island from just east of the Brooks Bridge to the Marler Bridge.

Future estimated project costs include about $70,000 for final design and construction plans and about $1 million for the path’s construction. County Public Works Director Jason Autrey recently said there is no timeline for the overall project, and officials don’t know yet which side of U.S. Highway 98 the path might be built on.

Hancock cited FDOT information that requires bicycle paths to be at least 8 feet wide and at least 3 feet from the road. Regardless of where the path is built, the Okaloosa Island Leaseholders Association is excited that the county is moving forward.

Hancock said Walton County has 14 bicycle shops but Fort Walton Beach has only one – Bob’s Bicycles. Mike Morris, manager of Bob’s Bicycles, recently said the shop doesn’t rent out bicycles because local roads and the Brooks Bridge are too dangerous.

Besides providing for safer biking, the addition of the Okaloosa Island path to the Coastal Trail Corridor would likely lead to more bicycle shops opening in the area, Hancock said. The expected increase in bicyclists would be a boon to lodging facilities and other businesses, he added.

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“We would see a lot more hardcore bikers up and down 98,” especially during the cooler months, he said. “They’ll come here and spend the night. And the path would maybe help decrease (motorized) traffic and open up downtown Fort Walton Beach.”

According to the DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails, trails and greenways attract tourists, increase property values, provide healthy recreation, improve quality of life, stimulate business development and provide alternative transportation.

The repeated annual economic impact of cyclists is estimated to be nine times the one-time cost to build bicycle facilities, and every $1 million spent on the construction of off-street, multi-use trails yields 9.6 jobs, according to the DEP.

When it’s eventually completed, the Great Northwest Coastal Trail Corridor would link to the existing "Capital City to Sea Trails" in Tallahassee and to St. Augustine through the "Original Florida Corridor," DEP Office of Greenways and Trails Bureau Chief Samantha Browne said in a February 2015 letter to the Leaseholders Association.

Hancock said County Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel has been the association's champion to get the path built between Fort Walton Beach and Destin.

“She’s the one who pushed for the (county Tourist Development Council) to fund this study,” he said. “If it wasn’t for her, we’d be dead in the water.”