A fine alabaster sand cradles the edges of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where teal pockets of shallow ocean give way to deep, navy expanses.
In this paradise in Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast, tourism and the military have jockeyed for space.
“Fort Walton is bound on the south by coastal waters, bound on the west by (two small towns), bound to the north by Okaloosa County, and bound to the east by bays. We don’t have any room left,” said John Hofstad, who serves as the city’s utilities director.
Three Air Force installations mark the region: Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Duke Field.
“We have always been a military community,” said Hofstad, the son of a military man and a Hurlburt native.
In the 1920s, the Air Force laid claim to large portions of this humid Gulf Coast region, according to Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce president Ted Corcoran.
“They had free control,” he said, until roughly two decades ago, when tourism in Fort Walton Beach bloomed.
These days, hotel skeletons and metal cranes are as much a part of the area’s scenery as palm trees; flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, more common sights than camouflage.
The economy is balanced evenly by tourism and the military, officials said.
“Tourism has encroached (the military). They don’t have as much freedom as they used to,” Corcoran said.
In 1990, the population of Fort Walton Beach was 27,706. Ten years later, it had doubled to 40,601, according to U.S. Census figures.
A hodgepodge of reasons piqued non-military interest in the region, officials said. As southern Florida crowded, Fort Walton Beach grew. Aggressive marketing also pushed the region from anonymity, said Corcoran.
Yet, the boom has taxed the region. Congested roadways plague residents and affordable housing is nearly impossible to find, officials said.
Hemmed by hotels and restaurants and spurred by a Department of Defense dictate that calls for a larger role in the war on terror, one wing at Fort Walton’s Hurlburt Field sought elbow room.
In October 2007, the Air Force 16th Special Operations Wing will assume ownership of Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis.
The transfer saves Cannon from closure as recommended by the Department of Defense in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round.
Military melting pot, big economic punch
Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast has more to boast of than sand like sugar and turquoise water. It is home to the nation’s largest Department of Defense installation: Eglin Air Force Base.
Two other bases, which combined almost triple the size of Cannon Air Force Base, lie within a 50-mile radius of Eglin.
Roughly 24,000 civilian and military personnel are employed at the base, according to Fort Walton Beach City Manager Joyce Shanahan.
Another 9,000 or so active-duty personnel are stationed at Hurlburt Field, the hub of the Air Force Special Operations Command. Add to that the 1,300 reservists and 300 full-time civilian service personnel at Duke Field, the home of the 919th Special Operations reserve wing, and the cocktail that is the Florida Panhandle assumes some shape.
Destined for Eglin in the next few years is an extra 2,000 troops, a decree of BRAC 2005.
“The (military) has a significant impact on our economy, no doubt about it,” Shanahan said.
“They are eating at our restaurants, attending our schools and living in homes in our county,” she said.
A study conducted in 2002 determined the military contributed $970 million in direct spending to the region’s economy, Shanahan said. Another $472 million sustains Department of Defense contracts in Okaloosa County, where Fort Walton sits, according to Shanahan. The government sheds $170 million a year in indirect payroll for its military retirees settled in the area.
“Those folks that move here tend to stay here,” Shanahan said.
Plenty of space awaits the 16th Special Operations Wing in rural eastern New Mexico.
But pulling away from paradise is not easy for some in the Wing, and there are local business owners who mourn their pending absence.
“This is a highly desirable tour of duty,” said military wife Vickye Arnold, whose husband is a pilot in the 16th Wing.
“From what I understand, there is not much (in Clovis),” she said.
The couple has not been relocated to New Mexico, but to her native Arizona, she said.
Air Force officials have not sealed the number of personnel or aircraft to be sent to Cannon. And the Special Operations presence in the region will not disappear.
The Air Force estimates about half of the personnel at Hurlburt will transfer to Cannon, and future Special Operations assets will be split between the bases, according to an Air Force press release.
In a New Orleans-style cafe clipped on the end of a strip of businesses near Hurlburt, the cash register is tethered to the purse strings of the Special Operations corps.
“Some days in here, all you see is military uniforms,” said cafe owner Debbie Wilson, who established her restaurant eight years ago.
“I don’t want to see them (the 16th Wing) go,” said Selenia Cole, a waitress at the cafe with military family ties.
Both of her daughters married Air Force Special Operations personnel, and one is expecting a child. She doesn’t know yet if her sons-in-law will be sent to New Mexico.
“A lot of these people are family or best friends,” she said, ducking into the kitchen.
Generally, Air Force Special Operations personnel are relocated once every four years — less frequently than in other branches, said 16th Wing member Maj. Eric Cox, who was one of five uniformed men lunching at a local sandwich shop.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty,” about the Wing shift, he said.
“A lot of folks are stationed here for a long time, and they are very happy,” Cox said.