FWB & Shalimar Renewed
More Than a FaceliftThe revisioning of Fort Walton Beach and Shalimar communities
Fort Walton Beach and Shalimar Renewed
With raw land scarce, redevelopment offers the key to future success for these Walton County communities
By Valerie Lovett
A drive through the Okaloosa County communities of Fort Walton Beach and Shalimar reveals a single obvious commonality: redevelopment at a breakneck pace.
While both municipalities face similar problems and challenges – the possible relocation of several thousand military jobs, rising costs of insurance and property taxes, a softened housing market – their futures remain bright, as new and revamped businesses begin to crop up where older buildings stood.
Fort Walton Beach
The new look in downtown Fort Walton Beach is a testament to that bright future.
Only a handful of years ago, said Fort Walton Beach MainStreet interim Executive Director Charlene Greenwald, the downtown area was replete with blighted buildings and only a few viable businesses.
“Five years ago, if you came to downtown, you would have said, ‘Why would anyone come downtown?’” Greenwald said.
But the MainStreet program and other groups’ efforts have helped set the stage for an economic revitalization that clearly is in full swing, she said.
One successful MainStreet project was the revamping of Fort Walton Landing, formerly an asphalt and weed-laden lot in the middle of downtown. The area now is a grassy city park, complete with walking trails, a playground and, at Christmastime, a 40-foot lighted tree and ice-skating rink.
The group also encourages business owners to clean up their properties, making the town more inviting to potential investors.
Tom Rice’s Magnolia Grill restaurant is a staple on Fort Walton Beach’s Brooks Street, part of the downtown area.
Rice and his wife, Peggy, took up a developer’s offer of a free early 20th-century home in exchange for its relocation about 1,000 feet north to make way for a bay-front condominium.
The two – both Fort Walton Beach natives – refurbished the building and moved their business there. They also moved their home into one of the then-new condominium units behind the restaurant.
Rice said all the new construction is a refreshing change.
“We look at it as the natural evolution of the community,” she said. “You save what you can save. All these new residential units have brought more people to waterfront areas in downtown than there’s been in 40 years.
“You can have historic preservation, revitalization and new development all combined together,” Rice said.
Downtown Fort Walton Beach began its decline in the 1940s and 1950s as businesses started to move east toward Destin, said Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce President Ted Corcoran.
The loss of those businesses put a huge dent in the downtown area, Corcoran said, although several new condominium projects now are in the works. And while the overall housing market may have gone soft, the forecast still is very positive for these residential buildings on the water, he said.
“The idea is we’re trying to make a livable, walkable community,” Corcoran said.
Loosening up some of the city’s ordinances to promote mixed-use developments, Fort Walton Beach Mayor Mike Anderson said, is part and parcel to recreating the community.
“We are pretty much landlocked,” he said. “We’re not going to grow very much by annexing property, so we’re concentrating on upgrading what we have.”
New sidewalks, sewer systems and parks are among the steps in place to improve the city, as well as the government’s ushering in various new developments.
But one obstacle that remains is U.S. Highway 98, which presents a challenge to “walkability” in the downtown area.
The goal is to encourage visitors to park their cars and wander along to shops and restaurants. However, Corcoran said, “you have 30,500 people traveling 98 on a daily basis, averaged annually. (The highway) becomes a challenge; people are afraid to cross the road, and it doesn’t feel conducive to wandering. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
A plan to construct a U.S. 98 bypass from Navarre north around Eglin and have it connect at U.S. Highway 331 could be the answer to that problem, Anderson said.
“We’re hoping that would be enough of a fix for people who are really going from, say, Mobile (Ala.) to Panama City,” he said.
The bypass could help slow down traffic, but in the meantime, a few quick fixes – such as creating one-way streets and a new intersection – have helped, Anderson said.
An Unsettled Coast
Fort Walton Beach has carried various monikers over the years, including Brooks Landing, Brooksville, Camp Walton, Fort Walton and finally, Fort Walton Beach, according to historian Nancy M. Kenaston.
The city’s history is rich, as demonstrated in the downtown Temple Mound landmark, built by Paleoindians who lived in the area as early as 12,000 B.C.
Later, early contemporary settlers to the area following the arrival of the Brooks family in 1868. Those settlers grappled with living on the unsettled coast, dealing even with dangerous pirates, Kenaston writes.
The city’s first school opened in 1912; during that time, lumber and supply schooners traveled Santa Rosa Sound in great numbers.
The state chartered the city as a municipality in 1937; it was reincorporated as the Town of Fort Walton in 1941.
In 1933, an airport was developed north of the city for use as a bombing and gunnery range by the military at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Kenaston writes, and was called Eglin Field. As the base grew, so did the town of Fort Walton, with many military retirees making their homes there.
In 1953, the city was renamed Fort Walton Beach in an effort to promote its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and thereby promote tourism. Census records show that between 1950 and 1970, the population of Fort Walton Beach grew from 2,463 to 19,994. Today’s population stands at about 25,000.
That population could have grown greatly over the next few years with the military’s plans to increase its numbers at Eglin, but Fort Walton Beach – and all of Okaloosa County – was dealt a blow with word that the Air Force’s 46th Test Wing from Eglin Air Force Base may relocate to California, a move that would result in a loss of several thousand jobs.
The news was contrary to the results of the latest round of base realignment and closures, which in 2005 put an influx of some 5,000 new military jobs on the base for a gain of about 12,000 new residents.
Anderson stressed that the relocation of the 46th Test Wing is not a done deal. Nevertheless, he said, the base will still see a net growth of about 2,200 workers, although they will not carry the contractor positions as before.
“One of the main reasons for the disappointment level,” Corcoran said, “was that the test wing had with them a lot of high-paying, white-collar jobs. In its place, the Army is coming in with more air-commando-type things, so that doesn’t create the same type of ancillary support system.”
However, Corcoran added, there is less concern over whether the Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa County will be able to provide the necessary infrastructure for such a large influx of new residents.
The town of Shalimar, from a business perspective, likely won’t notice the relocation of the 46th Test Wing, said Mayor Gary Combs.
But it’s not because they don’t want the money. Surrounded by water on three sides, Shalimar has little room to grow – but you won’t hear much complaining about it from city officials.
“Shalimar is pretty much all built out,” Town Manager Tom Burns said. “Now it’s a redevelopment issue.”
One of nine municipalities in Okaloosa County, the town claims 730 residents and lies within a footprint of only a quarter of a square mile.
“There’s a little over 4.2 miles of roadways in Shalimar,” Burns said. “That means if you ran every street in Shalimar, it’s like running just a little over a 5K race.”
Shalimar got its start in 1931, when it was known as Port Dixie, “an elaborate scheme of amazing proportions that captured the eye of many an investor and the attention of nearly all of Northwest Florida,” according to the town’s Web site (www.shalimarflorida.org).
The development was intended as a commercial-industrial complex on Garnier’s Bayou and was chartered, writes historian Elizabeth Holland, as the Port Dixie Harbor and Terminal Company. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not approve plans to dredge Destin East Pass – upon which the project hinged – and the development fell flat.
The town of Shalimar formed in the early 1940s when developer Clifford Meigs constructed some 160 homes for military officers and, catering to transient military personnel, the community thrived.
But the town did not incorporate until 1947, shortly after the opening of a local hotspot called the Shalimar Club, owned by Roger Clary. State law, Holland writes, prevented clubs in unincorporated areas from being open from midnight Saturday to Monday morning, threatening the business. Clary and Meigs joined with others to incorporate the town and prevent the gambling hotspot’s closure.
Gambling in Shalimar and in nearby Fort Walton, according to historian Henry Allen Dobson, collapsed after negative publicity and an intervention by then-Gov. Fuller Warren.
Meigs served as mayor from 1947 until his death in 1960. After his death, the Meigs family continued to have a strong influence on the town, donating land for what now are Meigs Middle School, Meigs Stadium and the Shalimar Courthouse Annex. The courthouse, Mayor Combs said, plays an important role in the community’s economic future.
The current facility, he said, does not comply with federal Americans with Disabilities Act laws, and the county’s judges have expressed concerns over inadequate security at the building.
“A big portion of the businesses in Shalimar are centered around that facility, and the courthouse is located right in the center of our area,” Combs said.
But Okaloosa County officials are eyeing a relocation to larger sites at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds and near Okaloosa-Walton College.
“Shalimar is so small, we really don’t have a say in it,” Combs said, noting that a deal with the Okaloosa County School Board to provide an additional 10 acres for expansion adjacent to the site fell flat.
While a loss of the courthouse could have negative ramifications for the community, redevelopment is key to a vibrant economy in the town, Burns said, and the courthouse site likely be would used for something else.
A few notable projects include a new Fairfield Inn and Suites that will an older office building and a former service station that soon will be a Starbuck’s coffee shop.
While Shalimar’s opportunities for annexation are limited – state law prevents annexing land over bodies of water – the city is looking for ways to entice businesses along State Road 85 into its limits.
“We would like to annex all of the businesses on 85,” Combs said. “We provide services to all of them, and we’re trying to figure out ways to make more attractive businesses want to come in.”
The town today still welcomes military families, although it has become more of a retirement area for them, Combs said. In fact, he said, all of the Town Council members are retired from the military, as are several municipal employees.
Like most people in Florida, Shalimar residents are feeling the pinch of rising insurance rates and property taxes.
Taxable value of property in the town was up by 18 percent last year and another 11 percent this year, leading to reductions in the city’s millage rate.
“The housing market is pretty flat, but maybe not quite as flat as some other areas,” Burns said.
The condominium craze that hit most of the rest of the shoreline has been absent in Shalimar, although one project did garner approval for a 110-foot, mixed-use development. Combs said that plans called for 127 units at the Shalimar Yacht Basin, one of the oldest marinas in the Panhandle.
“We would like to see it stay a marina,” Combs said.
A development order for the project was approved, but it has yet to be collected, Combs said, noting that town leaders have toyed with the idea of making an offer on the property, which is about five acres in size.
But being small has its advantages.
“You get a lot more personal attention when you’re in a small town,” Combs said.
“It’s small enough that if you have a problem, you can personally take it to the commission and if it’s in their power to resolve it, they can do it.”
Word On The Street
Here is what area leaders are saying about the growth and challenges that the communities of Fort Walton Beach and Shalimar are experiencing:
“Having a heritage that goes back a couple of generations, I know that things are always evolving, always changing. A lot of people who came here relatively recently found a place that they don’t want to change, they want it to stay the same. But we look at (development) as the natural evolution of the community. You save what you can save.”
– TOM RICE, owner of Magnolia Grill restaurant in downtown Fort Walton Beach
“I like Fort Walton Beach because I’m not from a big city, and it’s a nice place to be. There’s no crime, and people here are friendly and always willing to talk to you.” – Lenka Castillo, on living in Fort Walton Beach
“People are just waiting for opportunities to bring their businesses into these downtown buildings – you’re not going to see much sitting vacant for very long. We’re the only little town left on the Emerald Coast that does have that kind of ‘down home’ charm, though we’re not nearly as charming as we could be.” – Charlene Greenwald, interim executive director of Fort Walton Beach Main Street
Key Players In The Business Community
Mike Anderson, mayor of Fort Walton Beach, has lived in the city since 1979. He retired from the Air Force in 1984; since then, he has worked with Civil Service at Eglin Air Force Base. Prior to his election as mayor, Anderson served for four years as a Fort Walton Beach Council member and has served as a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Group and the Around-the-Mound Project Advisory Group.
Gary Combs has served as Shalimar’s mayor for eight years after serving as the town’s police commissioner for two years. Combs is retired from the Air Force and presently is a civilian electrical engineer with the 68th Electronic Warfare Squadron, 53rd Wing, Eglin Air Force Base. He also represents Shalimar on the executive board of the Okaloosa County League of Cities.
Ted Corcoran is president and chief executive officer of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce and has been a resident of the area since 1990. Corcoran also is a member of the Destin City Council.
Charlene Greenwald, interim executive director of Fort Walton Beach Main Street, relocated from Washington, D.C., eight years ago. Since that time she has served on the Citizen’s Advisory Committee of the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization, as well as several corridor management committees and a regional transportation authority.