Military moves, strong tourism could make 2022 a banner economic year locally

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — It's a little too early to tell exactly how the local economic picture, including job prospects, will come into focus in 2022, but nonetheless there are clear signs the next 12 months are "going to be a boom year," in the words of one local economic development professional.

Bill Imfeld, executive director of the Walton County Economic Development Alliance (WCEDA), said recently that 2022 will be "one of our best years ever." 

Residential construction, like this project off of Mack Bayou Road in southern Walton County, is an indication of a strong local economy, and will help meet needs associated with economic expansion in the coming year.

The WCEDA, a nonprofit business development organization founded in the 1990s, is not a part of the county government, but is overseen by a board comprising representatives of the County Commission, educational administrators, utility providers, business owners, and local mayors.   

There are two reasons for his optimism, Imfeld said.

Walton County officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking last year for a $4.7 million water and sewer project along U.S. Highway 331 near Interstate 10. The new infrastructure is expected to help fuel an economic boom in the area this year, according to Bill Imfeld, executive director of the Walton County Economic Development Alliance.

One, he said, is the upcoming completion — expected in March — of a $4.7 million water and sewer project along U.S. Highway 331 near Interstate 10.

Project underway:'Ground-shaking' $4.7M water and sewer infrastructure project underway in Walton County

The second is the Air Force's ongoing plan to move research and development into hypersonic weapons — missiles capable of flying at least five times the speed of sound, thus becoming difficult to defend against — from Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to Eglin Air Force Base, whose territory and economic influence spreads across Santa Rosa, Walton and Okaloosa counties.

The infrastructure project along U.S. 331, in an area that Imfeld said has been "an economic desert," has already spurred interest from a number of manufacturing, distribution and retail companies.

A common refrain among those interested enterprises has been, "We're coming — just get that water and sewer (going)," according to Imfeld said.

Given that interest, Imfeld said that for 2022 and beyond, "It's going to be just a huge business cycle" in that part of the county.

In addition to the expected boom along U.S. 331, Walton County — along with neighboring Okaloosa County, Imfeld was quick to note — will see some economic growth in connection with the transfer of Air Force hypersonics research to Eglin.

Okaloosa:Military payroll is largest in Florida. Here’s what that means for the economy.

Okaloosa officials are keenly mindful of the economic impact of military enterprises — both military installations and personnel, and the defense contractors that proliferate across the county — on their community.

Late last year, the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation (OLDCC) reported that for the 2020 fiscal year, DoD spending on defense contracts in Okaloosa County totaled $1.8 billion, the fourth-highest level of military contract spending in Florida.

Roughly 79,000 jobs in Okaloosa are tied to the defense industry in the county of 212,000 people.

Residential construction like this project in Walton County could become even more commonplace this year as new Air Force initiatives move into the area, according to the executive director of the Walton County Economic Development Alliance.

“It’s a staggering figure, and it’s impressive,” One Okaloosa Economic Development Council Executive Director Nathan Sparks told the Daily News late last year as the DoD numbers were announced. “We’ve got to do everything we can to protect and grow that engine. The numbers tell us how important that is.”

Sparks noted recently that the county has been seeing "unprecedented interest" from companies, including many outside the defense industry and tourism, interested either in locating or expanding their existing enterprises in the county.

One Okaloosa is tracking 33 economic development projects, according to Sparks, signifying an important diversification of the local economy beyond its military and tourism backbones. Sparks speculates that the number of new projects reflects the implementation of decisions that were put on hold during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.  

A contracting crew works on a new public beach access on Scenic Gulf Drive in Walton County. Despite difficulties in staffing hospitality-related businesses, tourism is expected to remain strong in Walton County during this year's vacation season.

With regard to the coming hypersonics boom, Imfeld said that a couple of years ago the Air Force brought him and Sparks to Washington, D.C., to talk about the then-beginning transfer of hypersonics research and development from Wright-Patterson to Eglin.

Part of the reason for the meeting was to provide local officials with a heads-up regarding the need for housing and other infrastructure to be in place to support the relocation, he said.

A major reason for the move, Imfeld noted, is the presence of the 120,000-square-mile Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range. The range, which includes some land area but is mostly concentrated across the eastern Gulf of Mexico, will provide the Air Force with the room it will need to test hypersonic weapons, which by virtue of their speed will need a massive test range to avoid endangering the public.  

The Air Force is about halfway through its five-year effort to move hypersonics research and development to Northwest Florida, he said. Over the remaining couple of years, the initiative will involve settling about 2,000 new families in the area, he added.

That means that sooner rather than later, there will be plenty of work for homebuilders and subcontractors in the two counties, Imfeld noted.

"If you're a homebuilder, come on down," he said.

Sparks is a bit more circumspect regarding housing issues in the area, noting in a recent interview the need to ensure that available housing — either new construction or sales of existing housing stock — includes options for "affordable housing" for workers at all levels of the economic ladder. 

In addition to the pending arrival of hypersonics research and development to the area, another development on the military front will have a significant economic impact in the near future.

Laura Bagge and Kora Welch of the Nature-Inspired Research Facility — part of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base — demonstrate some of their work regarding how bees use the Earth's magnetic field for navigation. In the coming year, research functions moving to Eglin from elsewhere in the Air Force will be an important economic driver in the region.

According to Imfeld, "a major defense contractor" — he wouldn't name the contractor because details haven't been finalized —  is firmly planning to move both its headquarters and a manufacturing facility from California to Freeport.

Along with the promising developments along the military front, there is optimism surrounding tourism, despite issues in keeping dining and other hospitality-related enterprises fully staffed.

Matt Algarin, director of communications for the Walton County Tourist Development Council, said accommodation bookings for the upcoming spring holiday season from February through April — the traditional beginning of tourist season — are on par with last year.   

"Once again, there's going to be a strong demand for a beach getaway," Algarin said.

He contended that southern Walton County may, in fact, be a preferred vacation destination in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for visitors — especially families — opting for short-term vacation rental housing.

As far as families staying in vacation rentals are concerned, Algarin noted, "You know you're the only people you're going to interact with."

Beyond that, Algarin said the various leisure options available for visitors, including state parks and state forests, mean that "you can be as close to somebody or as far away from somebody as you're comfortable with."