January 26, 2011 7:11 PM
OKALOOSA ISLAND — The United States may be slow to recover from the recession, but a local economist projects Okaloosa County will experience what would normally be 10 years of growth in the next two years.
Rick Harper, interim director of the Office of Economic Development and Engagement at the University of West Florida, was one of the guest speakers Wednesday at the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County’s annual Military-Community Sustainability Forum. The forum is designed to provide an avenue for community and military leaders to share their plans and address issues that affect them.
“I expect this to be a year of unprecedented growth for Okaloosa County,” Harper said. “If you simply look at the jobs that we’re expecting, just the positive shot to the local economy that results from the BRAC relocations, from the announced arrival of Vision Airlines serving over 20 destinations, that’s about a 10 percent bump in direct employment in the area.
“We’re going to be growing rapidly and the challenge once again as we look back to the last decade is going to be how do we manage that growth effectively and how to turn it to the benefit of those who live in the community and meet our missions?” he added.
Harper said Vision Airlines will have a huge impact on the tourism market in Okaloosa and South Walton County.
Southwest and Delta airlines provided a 7.9 percent increase in tourism for Panama City after last year’s opening of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, which added 1,100 new seats flying into Bay County every day. Harper said Vision Airlines’ increase is more than four times that amount.
“The economic future is bright. It’s happening in 2011 and it’s going to put us back on the path we should have been on if not for the oil spill,” Harper said.
Wednesday’s forum also included a panel discussion that featured some of the top commanders at Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Naval Air Station Whiting Field.
Construction of the cantonment south of Crestview for the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) is ahead of schedule.
“A lot of people ask me when 7th Special Forces is going to get here,” said Lt. Col. Martin Schmidt with the Special Forces. “When are we coming? Really, we’re here.”
Schmidt said 103 soldiers of the 1,887 in the group already have been assigned to Eglin. Between 70 and 80 soldiers will arrive in April, and starting May 1 between 90 and 150 soldiers and their families a week will be relocated to the area. That will continue until the move is completed Sept. 15.
Schmidt said the 7th Special Forces Group will add a fourth battalion in the near future. That will mean a total of 2,247 troops and 6,000 dependents in the region.
Marine Col. Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, also gave an update on the delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. At the same event last year, Tomassetti said the first two fighters were expected at Eglin last fall.
Tomassetti said Eglin now expects to have 10 to 14 fighter jets on base and be ready to fly by the end of the year.
“We’ve got the right people on our team to deal with those changes and handle them,” Tomassetti said. “Things will be a little different than what we thought they’d be, but that’s OK because we’re still going to do it smart, we’re still going to do it safe and we’re still going to do it right.”
Naval Air Station Whiting Field also is getting new aircraft. It is replacing its aging T-34C Turbo Men-tor fleet with 150 Beechcraft T-6 Texan IIs. Capt. Pete Hall said Whiting Field already has 54 of the planes and will receive about one a week for close to two years.
“We needed this aircraft and it’s coming to us one at a time,” Hall said.