The Bay is Booming

The Bay Is BoomingHome to Eglin Air Force Base, Okaloosa-Walton College and some of the area’s fastest growing communities, the North Bay Business Corridor is set for success.

By Tony Bridges 

Jetfighters overhead may be just a lot of unpleasant noise to visitors, but for the people who live in and around the North Bay Business Corridor, screaming airplanes make the sweet sound of prosperity.

Niceville, Valparaiso and Bluewater Bay, which come together to form the corridor, are nestled into a small pocket of land between Eglin Air Force Base and the northern edge of Choctawhatchee Bay. For more than 30 years, the three communities of the north bay area have depended on the military for economic survival.

It’s a pleasant irony because Eglin may never have existed in Okaloosa County if not for a donation of land by the man who helped establish those communities. Now, thousands of airmen and civilian contractors from Eglin live and shop in the north bay, pouring millions of dollars each year into the local economy.

And it looks as though it will only get better. Recent base-realignment recommendations are expected to bring several thousand more military and civilian jobs to Eglin over the next few years, with a countywide economic impact estimated at nearly a half-billion dollars annually. The only potential negative is the possible departure of the 46th Test Wing, which could mean a loss of hundreds of high-paying positions.

Meanwhile, the North Bay Business Corridor, which also serves as the center of education for Okaloosa, is continuing to deal with traffic and other growth issues while trying to maintain its bedroom-community sensibility.

“We’ve worked very hard to market ourselves as a nice hometown,” said Tricia Brunson, president and CEO of the Nice-ville-Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t want to be a tourist destination. We want to be more than a place that you drive through to get to the beaches.”

From Fishing Boats to Fighter Planes

Like most of this part of the state, the north bay area initially was settled by fishermen who pulled mullet out of the bay by the boatload, and by traders who used the network of bayous and rivers to move their goods across the Panhandle and on to points north.

Flat, wide-open land north of the bay attracted cattle ranchers and timber companies toward the latter half of the 1800s, and with their arrival came mail service, lumber mills and turpentine distilleries.

Back then, the town that would become Niceville was known as Boggy, named for the finger of the bay called Boggy Bayou.

John Perrine landed in the north bay near the turn of the century and immediately recognized the opportunities for an entrepreneurial sort. He started the Valparaiso Development Company, an agricultural enterprise that helped to plan the layout of Niceville and the smaller Valparaiso (which incorporated in 1921).

Perrine later passed control of his company to James E. Plew, and it was Plew who, in 1934, donated 1,500 acres of land to the Army Air Corps to help establish an airfield.

The city of Niceville incorporated four years later by a vote of 325 to 4. The newly created city went on to issue bonds to help build its first ice plant, which moved more than 3.5 million pounds of fish in its first year of operation.

As the 20th century progressed, commercial fishing and timber harvesting declined while the fledgling military airfield steadily grew into a major Air Force base.

The growth led to the start of the Bluewater Bay development in the early 1970s and, two decades later, to the construction of the Mid-Bay Bridge that connected the north bay to Destin.

Today, there are about 28,000 permanent residents of the north bay, from Valparaiso on the west side to Bluewater Bay on the east.

Big Business for the North Bay

Think of it as a company town.

The North Bay Business Corridor, through a combination of proximity and affordable living, “sits at the nexus of military activity in this community,” said Jim Breitenfeld, who heads the Defense Support Initiative for the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County.

It’s a bedroom community to many of the 24,000 active military and civilian employees who work at Eglin –as well as their 19,000 dependents – and also is home to several thousand more Air Force veterans and retired defense contractors. That is particularly true in Bluewater Bay, a mixed-use development that combines offices for defense contractors and homes for about 9,500 residents.

It also is the place where the military spends its money. That includes government-mandated local spending on everything from batteries to trash bags for the base, as well as the money that base personnel spend in the community on food, housing and other necessities.

Countywide, the military spends about $475 million a year farming out work to local businesses, an amount that supports about  20,000 jobs. The military’s total economic impact on the county – between local spending, wages paid to service members and benefits paid to retires – is about $5 billion.

Greg Pope, owner of Accent Signs in Niceville, estimates that up to one-third of his business comes directly from Eglin through the trade show exhibits, squadron logos and signs he makes for the base.

As for the rest, he figures most of it is indirectly related to the military, either in the work he does for other businesses that cater to the military or from walk-in customers employed at Eglin.

“It’s all built on the fact that the base is here,” he said.

The same goes for Carolyn Chesser. She owns the Bayou Book Co., a higher-end Niceville shop that sells books and gifts near Eglin’s east gate. A significant portion of her customers come from the base, especially during the daily lunch rush.

“The military affects most of the businesses here, including mine,” she said.

The military also stimulates the local economy in other ways. For example, the Okaloosa public school system is the second largest employer in the area. The reason: The north bay needs four elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school to keep up with all the students brought in by the Air Force base.

Of course, not every dollar in the North Bay Corridor comes from Eglin.

Higher education is the other major industry in the area. Niceville also is home to the 263-acre main campus and administrative offices of Okaloosa-Walton College.

The school has an annual budget of $56 million and employs 250 full- and part-time instructors, along with a support staff of more than 200. Most of them live in Niceville and Bluewater Bay, according to OWC President Robert “Bob” Richburg.

The school serves nearly 10,000 students each year at the main campus and another 1,400 at the Eglin extension.

The school’s Arts Center also is on the main campus, where traveling Broadway shows and performances by the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra generate nearly $1 million in annual ticket sales, Richburg said.

And then there’s tourism.

While the corridor isn’t a tourist destination, it is home to many of the workers who commute to Destin for jobs in the retail and service industries. One indicator of that is traffic on the Mid-Bay Bridge.

Of the 7.3 million cars and light trucks that passed over the bridge during the 2005 fiscal year, about 60 percent were local commuters traveling between Niceville and Destin.

Changes and Challenges Ahead

There was some good news for the North Bay Business Corridor last year.

The Department of Defense – in its 2005 base realignment and closure report – recommended that Eglin’s mission be increased by adding a training facility for the Joint Strike Fighter and by transferring in the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, among other changes.

If those recommendations are implemented, as expected, Eglin could grow by an additional 12,000 active-duty service members, civilian contractors and dependents by 2012, according to the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida.

The economic impact on Okaloosa would include about $473 million in construction contracts spread over several years, and another $473 million a year in annual wages – a significant portion of which service members presumably would spend on the local economy.

Some of the base’s expansion could be offset by a pending decision to move all or part of the 46th Test Wing from Eglin to Edwards Air Force Base in California. The possible loss of several hundred highly paid senior officers and civilian engineers – in other words, people with plenty of disposable income – is a major concern for corridor businesses, regardless of the new units coming in.

“We don’t want to get them and lose the 46th,” said Brunson, the chamber president. “They’re very important to us.”

Still, even if Eglin loses the 46th, there is going to be a net increase in population and local spending from the base.
What is not clear yet is how much of the economic benefit from that will go to the corridor and how much to other parts of Okaloosa County.

According to the Okaloosa EDC, about 80 percent of the new service members coming into Eglin will need housing in the communities surrounding the base. The problem for the north bay area is that it has a limited amount of land, and much of it already has been developed.

That means there will be a lack of affordable housing for new Eglin personnel, said Christina Ruckles, a Realtor with Carriage Hills Realty and long time north bay businesswoman.

“There’s only so much land left, and obviously the developers are going to want to make the most money they can off it,” she said.

“So, unless you have someone very philanthropic, its going to be very hard for them to find housing.”

Even Bluewater Bay, where many officers and defense contractors choose to live, is nearly full. There were only about three dozen homes available there in late summer

 “We’re almost sold out of lots now,” said Doug Jackson of Bluewater Realty.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for growth. Not according to Lannie Corbin, city manager of Niceville.

“We are far from being built out,” he said.
Corbin said he figures there are at least another 1,700 to 1,800 acres of land to be developed within the city, including a 1,300-acre, mixed-use parcel that developers are considering near Rocky Bayou.

The city had not received plans for the development as of late summer, but Corbin said he believed it would consist of about 1,000 residential acres – with as many as five to 10 units per acre – and about 300 acres of commercial property.

In addition, Corbin said he is aware of a proposal to build condos on a five-acre site at the head of Boggy Bayou.

In other development, the city approved the construction of a Home Depot store on 29 acres along Johnson Parkway. Officials are working to bring in a Wal-Mart as well, Corbin said.

But growth in the North Bay Business Corridor faces one other major challenge: severe roadway congestion.

Traffic on State Roads 85 and 285 passes through Niceville going to and from Destin. That has led to massive snarls on State Road 20 on the stretch from Niceville down to the Mid-Bay Bridge.

There are two fixes in the works that should help with the problem. One is the widening of Highway 20 through Niceville, and the other is a planned connector road from the bridge up to 85.

Jim Vest, executive director of the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, said the connector will require Eglin to provide right-of-way access. The Air Force has given tentative approval. Now, it is a matter of working with the base to find the best route.

“As soon as the route is determined, our vision is to complete the connector route in phases,” he said.

The first will be from the bridge to State Road 20; the second will go to State Road 285; and the third will go the rest of the way to State Road 85. With the connector, pass-through traffic heading to the beaches won’t have to drive through the middle of the north bay area.

“We’d start on that tomorrow if we had the right of way,” Vest said.

He said he hopes to have the connector completed by 2013 – the same year it may become necessary to open a second span of the bay bridge, if traffic continues to increase as it has, he said.

And the way Eglin – and by extension Okaloosa County and the North Bay Business Corridor – is set to grow over the next several years, that may very well happen.