CRESTVIEW — Just as the regional military presence sheltered north Okaloosa County’s real estate market during the recent recession, it also helped keep unemployment below the national average.
In February, the last month with available data, Okaloosa County had a 5.5 percent unemployment rate. That was down a half-percent from January, and nearly a percent and a half from February 2012's 6.9 percent.
The county surpassed the February 7.5 percent statewide unemployment rate and the national 8.1 percent, Linda Sumblin, Workforce Development Board’s executive director, said.
"We're optimistic," she said. "We have the luxury of having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state at this time."
Only Monroe County, with 4.2 percent unemployment for February, had a lower rate, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Sequestration still a threat
A potential impediment to continued growth is sequestration, Sumblin said. However, the Department of Defense has lowered the number of possible furlough days for civilian employees, she said.
A senior department official speaking on background said more than 700,000 officials next month will receive notices of their 14 unpaid leave days expected in mid-to-late June, according to the American Forces Press Service.
While sequestration won't apply to active-duty military members, it will cover civilian workers, including those employed in defense contractors' companies.
"We're working with the defense contractors about how that's going to effect us," Sumblin said. "Right now, we haven't heard much from them, which we're ecstatic about."
Sequestration "certainly will have a ripple effect" on the area economy, as civilian workers will decease their discretionary spending, potentially affecting other businesses, Sumblin said.
Hospitality season gears up
Though much of the hospitality industry focuses on the county’s south end, Crestview receives a boost due to its position as a gateway to tourist destinations, with visitor traffic passing through town on Interstate 10 and State Road 85.
"This time of year, with the hospitality season, there's more hiring going on," Sumblin said. "We're seeing a great increase from the positive tourist season last year."
Crestview area hotels saw a marked increase in bookings as snowbirds and spring breakers discovered north county hotels were a better bargain — and more likely to have last-minute rooms available — than properties farther south.
Proximity to Fort Walton Beach and other nearby bodies of water helps.
"People can stay in Crestview and still participate in a beach vacation," Crestview Area Chamber of Commerce incoming President Dennis Mitchell said.
Mopping up the oil spill impact
"We're anticipating an even better season this year as we recover from the unwelcome BP oil spill event," Sumblin said.
Though Crestview is 30 miles from the closest beach, the threat of oil from the April 2010 BP spill had local impact, she and Mitchell said.
"The advantage is clear," Mitchell said. "We get all those folks coming through, and they go to all three counties (Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa). We see them a lot. We depend on those beaches a great deal.
"All you need to do is look at just the threat of the BP oil coming near here and business dropped noticeably."
Rick Plante, Possum Ridge BBQ’s pit master, said trade at his north State Road 85 location slowed to a trickle during the summer of 2010.
"I call it the ricochet effect," Mitchell said. "We didn't get the beach impact as hard as they did down south, but it certainly did affect us, which proves that a healthy beach and a healthy beach economy (are) important to us here."
New tricks for old dogs