University of West Florida research associates have launched a feasibility study to designate the Florida Panhandle as a National Heritage Area. 

Two University of West Florida centers — the Askew Institute for Multidisciplinary Studies and the Florida Public Archaeology Network — are working to make sure that these resources will be preserved and used for sustainable communities’ development; and to brand the area nationally for its cultural and natural values.

"Since we started to conduct a study on heritage tourism in Northwest Florida, we learned that the Florida Panhandle area is home to many historical firsts and unique resources that are nationally significant," Dr. Sorna Khakzad said. She is a UWF research associate leading the NHA feasibility study.

The UWF study includes setting an area boundary; an economic, environmental impact assessment; and organizing meetings to communicate the project progress with all stakeholders for comments, advice and support.

The 55 United States NHAs are places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes. Unlike national parks, NHAs are large, lived-in landscapes. They collaborate with communities to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs. Florida doesn't currently have an exclusive NHA.

NHAs receive technical support from the National Park Service and recurring federal funding that catalyzes public-private partnership. However, NHAs are not an NPS entity. The designation will not affect property ownership or impose new regulations in the area.

Studies have shown they generate economic development and create jobs, in addition to encouraging heritage preservation, tourism promotion thorough branding the area nationally, and fostering a sense of pride and identity in the communities, according to a UWF media release.

Since 2016, Khakzad and her colleague, Michael Thomin have been working with experts, stakeholders and community partners in Florida's 14 westernmost counties to identify and research significant sites such as museums, shipwrecks, historic businesses and cultural hubs.

They hold planning meetings in each county to explain their efforts and the significance of NHA designation. Meetings have been held with groups such as the Florida Historical Commission, Explore Northwest Florida, the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida and the Okaloosa Tourist Development Council. The meetings have lead to support and a motion to recommend the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources to support the project as well.

It may even provide ways to help  NHA area entities recover from crises and improve collaboration between them, Khakzad said.

Regular updates about project progress, and calls for public input and collaboration will be avaliable through the project’s website, newspapers and the upcoming Facebook page. Visit www.uwf.edu/fpnha for more information.