Walton Commissioners and TDC learn more about The Paper Bear

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Most Walton County residents know what a special place this is, yet at the most recent meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), everyone discovered that Walton County may be even more unique than we previously suspected.

Noted filmmaker Arix Zalace and Sean Couch, entrepreneur and philanthropist, discussed the ecological jewel known as the North American Coast Plain. Zalace explained that within that region, extending across multiple states, the Florida Panhandle is a rare biological ‘hotspot,’ hosting many plants and animals that only exist here and nowhere else on the planet.

Zalace revealed that we have over 6,200 species of plants, and 1,816 of them are endemic to the North American Coastal Plain, meaning they cannot be found anywhere else on earth. Out of 424 species of freshwater fish, 138 are endemic to this region. We have 122 species of amphibians and 57 of them are endemic. We have 291 kinds of reptiles; 113 species are endemic. We have 274 kinds of birds and six are endemic. Finally, we have 306 species of mammals, 114 of which are unique to this region. Within that larger area, the 18 counties that make up the Florida Panhandle are the epicenter of this ‘biological hotspot’ and contain the most biodiversity, making the Florida Panhandle one of the most extraordinary places in the world.

This realization led Zalace, a longtime Panhandle resident, and Couch, president of the JW Couch Foundation, to launch a joint venture that has culminated in the creation of a feature film called The Paper Bear. Arix Zalace called it “the story of the Panhandle through the eyes of the Florida black bear.” Much of the inspiration for the film came from Zalace’s incredible experiences spent living among a family of black bears deep in the Panhandle wilderness for two and a half years.

Though the screen story revolves around a fictional father and son, the film draws on Arix’s time in the forest with the bears and Sean’s experiences as a father of four to create a compelling narrative designed to inspire viewers to protect and preserve this area’s natural wonders, while providing great family entertainment.

Zalace said that over 70% of the movie was filmed in Walton County. The movie will also feature world-class animation, created by some of the most recognized and talented animation professionals in the world. The movie will be a mix of ‘live’ action and animation.

The production is still ongoing and part of the reason for Zalace’s presentation at a workshop between the Walton County Commission, the Walton County Tourism Department (TDC) and other community partners, was to seek additional funding to complete the film. Zalace and Couch have already raised more than $870,000, mostly from South Walton sources, but another $400,000 is needed to complete the feature film.

Following the presentation, several audience members voiced strong support for the film and made suggestions regarding other potential funding sources. There are numerous arts, culture and historical organizations in the county that might be interested in assisting with funds. Also, many well-known celebrities maintain homes in South Walton and all along the Emerald Coast, who could help sponsor this production.

BCC Attorney Clay Adkinson asked several legal questions on behalf of the commission and TDC officials spoke in support of the project. Jill Tanner said, “It (funding) should come out of the TDC marketing budget. This IS marketing. And we are marketing to the right people.”

Addressing the commissioners, TDC Director Matt Algarin said, “We look at the county seal – ‘Pride, Preservation, Conservation’ – and I think there are opportunities for us…looking at how we market the area and the things that we find value in…We’re going to bring this in front of the Tourist Development Council at a formal meeting. So, there’s going to be another opportunity there for people to come out so we can talk about this,” he continued. “When it comes to funding, we have already done some preliminary looks and we have identified some places where funding could be available. You know, I think that’s to be determined as we move further along.”

Algarin closed by thanking the commissioners, TDC officials and the public for their willingness to learn more about the project and to consider various options moving forward.

To find out more about The Paper Bear, visit www.ThePaperBear.org.

For additional information, please contact Public Information at (850) 892-8155 or pio@co.walton.fl.us.

**Editors note — TDC and Visit Florida – and now this project, continue to ignore the reach of streaming TV 

Walton Commissioners and TDC learn more about The Paper Bear

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