The "Emerald" Airport

22 Jun 2011 by Julie Dorris

Panama City, FloridaFlorida has a new, green landing spot

The Florida panhandle is affectionately known to locals as the "Redneck Riviera", given its dive beer bars, t-shirt shops, tattoo parlors and burger joints all steps from the beach. "Cheeseburger in Paradise" could be its theme song. At the same time, the area is known as the "Emerald Coast" for its white sands and blue-green waters. It is definitely one of the country's best-kept secrets.

The word is about to get out, however. The newly opened Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport provides easier access to an area frequented mainly by residents of the Southern states. In the summer of 2010, many around the world got a glimpse of the area's beautiful white sands threatened by the BP oil spill. They heard the names of areas such as Seaside, Rosemary Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Alys Beach. But when Florida has Orlando, West Palm Beach and Miami, why would anyone choose to vacation in these tiny beach communities?

When I was a child, we would drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf on whim, find a modest hotel, spend all day on the beach and go out for fried seafood at night. Before bed we would stomp along the shore through the warm water with our flashlights looking for flounder. My parents would wake up at the break of dawn to collect shells before they got broken, found or washed away. Then it was to the beach again, breaking only for lunch.

Gulf Coast Beach, FloridaIt was all about the sugar white sand and placid warm waters in a laid-back atmosphere. Today, not much has changed. The area attracts artists, small business owners and families tired of the hustle and bustle of the city. It's a place for those who want to wake up everyday to the sight of unspoiled beaches.

The area has also become a model for green building practices and New Urbanism, the creation of walkable, sustainable communities. Seaside is one of these communities. It is so perfectly planned with cottage-style buildings and white picket fences that it was used for many of the scenes in the film "The Truman Show".

The New Urbanist communities follow green building codes, and the new airport itself is a green airport. In addition to its LEED-certified terminal building, the airport was built with sustainable materials, and its landscaping will not need supplemental irrigation. During the planning of the new airport, environmentalists were concerned about the impact on protected waters. "As a result, the Airport Authority developed detailed plans for wetlands mitigation, wildlife management, storm water management and wastewater treatment that greatly exceed minimum requirements set by Florida law", as stated on the airport's website.

As of now, the airport is served by Delta and Southwest airlines. With arrivals approximately every hour from major airports such as Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis, it's only a matter of time before the area is discovered.

Residents have mixed feelings about the airport. On one hand, tourism will bring more business to the quaint shops, inns, restaurants and galleries. On the other hand, more tourism means more footsteps on the sand, more impact. Panama City Beach, known for its rocking Spring Breaks and year-round party atmosphere, has always seen a lot of action. But the sleepy towns to the west will be seeing many new faces in the years to come and is likely to become a
premiere vacation destination.

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