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New Non-Profit Aims To Preserve And Promote Northwest Florida

Aerial view of Pensacola c. 1900.
Florida Memory
Aerial view of Pensacola c. 1900.
Aerial view of Pensacola c. 1900.
Credit Florida Memory
Aerial view of Pensacola c. 1900.

A new nonprofit aims to preserve Northwest Florida’s maritime heritage and natural landscape while also working toward designating much of the western Florida panhandle as a National Heritage Area (NHA). 

Efforts to establish the panhandle’s NHA — what would be the first NHA for Florida and No. 50 for the country — started in 2018 with Dr. Sorna Khakzad-Knight, and Mike Thomin, museum manager and research associate at Destination Archaeology Resource Center. The nonprofit, called the Northwest Florida Maritime Landscape Alliance for Preservation, or MPLA, was formed in January and brings together a nine-person board of directors with representation from Escambia County to Leon County who have all been active with the NHA efforts. 

“National Heritage Areas inspire collaboration with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs,” said Dr. Sorna Khakzad-Knight, who serves as president of the MLAP.  “Therefore, as we move forward with our initiative to designate our area as a national heritage area, we follow our motto, ‘Act as a national heritage area, before becoming one.’ Our goal is not just to acquire a national brand for our area, but mainly to make sure that we preserve our natural, cultural and archaeological resources for present and future generations, and share our significant resources and history regionally, nationally and internationally.” 

A National Heritage Area is a place where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes, according to the National Park Service.  Designating an NHA is not an easy process. It takes years of research, feasibility studies, public input — and an act of Congress. 

An NHA designation could be a “game-changer” for the panhandle, Thomin said in 2018. It would not only help brand the area but provide up to $700,000 in annual funding in addition to technical support from the Parks Service.

The first big requirement for an NHA is a feasibility study which been ongoing for the past few years, said Khakzad-Knight.

“We are hoping to have our feasibility study completed by summer 2021 and send it for the first round of review to our National Heritage Area Regional Office,” she added. “After that, it all depends on the feedback that we receive. In the meantime, we need to reach out to our elected officials and update them with our progress.”

As part of their early research, Khakzad-Knight and Thomin hosted 12 public meetings and several workshops throughout the panhandle to provide outreach and education as well as get feedback. Overall, they’ve collected 127 letters of support. 

The pandemic has slowed the work, but luckily in-person meetings were completed by 2019. Khakzad-Knight said 2020 was a chance to reassess the work.  

A map of the boundary lines for the proposed Northwest Florida National Heritage Area.
A map of the boundary lines for the proposed Northwest Florida National Heritage Area.

“Last year has given us a new perspective and a new direction,” she said. “We learned that if we want to accomplish a great task, such as designation of our area as a National Heritage Area, we need some changes in the way that the process is coordinated. We realized that we need a more balanced representation of different entities in the process. Although the pandemic slowed down our normal work, it gave us an opportunity to rethink and revise our approach. As a result, MPLA was born.”

The nine people on MPLA board represent various areas of expertise including tourism, politics, education, arts, sciences, business and government. Khakzad-Knight said it was an initial goal to include such diverse skills. 

“(We want) to make sure that everyone and every area has the opportunity to tell their stories and be a part of this amazing initiative,” she said. “In the end our goal is to bring everyone together to preserve and promote our beautiful area and tell our unique story.” 

For more information about Northwest Florida Maritime Landscape Alliance for Preservation, INC, visit northwestfloridamlap.org

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Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as the digital content producer and reporter. After graduating from University of West Florida in 2009 with a B.A. in Communication Arts/Journalism, she worked for print publications across Northwest Florida including InWeekly, The Destin Log and Northwest Florida Daily News. In 2016, she was named Features Writer of the Year by Gatehouse Media. Born in Pennsylvania, she admits to being a "Yankee who drinks sweet tea." She dislikes cold weather and is happy to trade a white Christmas for 75-degree weather anytime. She's a proud volunteer of Gulf Coast Kid's House and Save Our Cats and Kittens (SOCKS) in Fort Walton Beach. When she's not reading or listening to podcasts, she enjoys photography, 80s movies, re-watching "The Office" and looking at pictures of your cats.
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