You write: "MY passion is to be the best and serve the highest quality. I feel my only avenue will be to open my own espresso bar."
I hear this so often from people starting up. But they make so many compormises along the way, they end up being a mediocre player in the espresso world. I am of the opinion that finding a decent espresso in North America is an exception rather than the norm. You would not get that feeling by reading the posts on this board. Start by developing a clear picture of the quality level at which you wish to operate. Then seek out the sources that support that quality level, no matter where in the US it is. Your question, "Is it better to hook up with a local roaster?" says a lot.
i would assume from your profile pic you mean starbucks (which is ok, i used to work there too. it's just the mcdonalds of coffee, as i'm sure you well know). where i began after leaving starbucks was the asheville dripolator and getting back to pulling shots on a real machine. from what you've stated, i doubt you would be using verismo superautos at your fledgling coffeeshop, so it would be good to get a few months experience (whether volunteer or as a paid barista) working with the type of equipment you'll actually be using (proper grinders, semiauto espresos machines, pourover, chemex, aeropress, etc.)
however, you'll obviously be continuing in your present position for a while - and where you begin from this point would be lots and lots of education. take a year, at least, and study ridiculous amounts of blogs, forum posts, youtube videos, etc. save up a bit of money and attend the american barista and coffee school (link is amidst the ads on this page). take your time. find some good local shops and pick their brains if they're willing. go to barista competitions and coffee expos. DEFINITELY watch the US Barista Championship and World Barista Championship internet streams in april and june.
whatever you do, don't rush the process, and get a good grasp on where the standard actually is - don't half-ass it. there are a lot of things i still feel like i'm not up to snuff with, but i know how the best in the world do it and i'm striving to get there.
Some good advice here.
Not sure if you've seen any of the other discussions on this, but here's a very recent one. A search through the discussions will yield others.
The hardest part I'd say was having it totally take over your existence. Too many don't anticipate this at all and are not mentally prepared.
Other big challenges are starting with adequate funding (most don't) and upfit cost/timeline control.
So many people spend a disproportionate amount of time working out DOT numbers for car counts, median incomes, etc... it gives them a false sense of understanding their business. Focus more on concept, costs, execution plans, training, etc - the actual execution part of things. Figure out a great, great concept that fits your community (or some slice of it) and work out every facet of it to make it work.
More later. Good luck.