CRESTVIEW — The Air Force and Army’s Northwest Florida presence has been an economic generator for Crestview and surrounding communities.
The University of West Florida’s Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development estimates the average earnings per military-related job are $87,300; annual military economic impact to Okaloosa County is $5.2 billion with more than 58,800 local jobs.
In Northwest Florida, military workers generate more than $4 billion in annual sales activity and consume $3.3 billion in goods. Defense annually brings capital investment of $495 million, according to a 2012 report from the Association of Defense Communities.
The influx of an estimated 6,000 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) troops and airmen of the Eglin 33rd Fighter Wing, support staff and family members helped shield Crestview and its housing market from the recent recession.
Armament development, including creating the 2002 Massive Ordnance Air Burst bomb, commonly known as the "mother of all bombs,” remains an integral part of Eglin Air Force Base's mission.
Eglin test support personnel, mostly civilian employees, run and analyze weapons trials by the U.S. Air Force and allied nations. Foreign allies routinely rotate in and out of Eglin for training on the F-35 fighter jet.
Nearly half the Department of Defense's spending in the state occurs in Northwest Florida, according to the Okaloosa County Economic Development Council.
Even with possible civilian employee furloughs — which the Department of Defense said won’t be as severe as anticipated — the average military salary is nearly double the state average, the EDC said.
Military and municipal partnership
With the Eglin reservation comprising nearly half the county, and the base's Military Influence Planning Area taking up nearly two-thirds of the remaining half, community leaders mindful of the military's economic contribution are careful to not infringe on its missions.
Crestview has joined eight regional municipalities, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties, and Eglin Air Force Base in the Military Sustainability Partnership, which plans strategies to enhance and support the military's Northwest Florida mission.
The Crestview City Council last month sent the state a revised comprehensive plan that, if approved, would adopt recommendations from the base's Small Area Studies report completed last fall. These include mitigating light pollution that can distract pilots' night vision, and implementing structure height restrictions within approaches to Duke Field. Limiting residential development potentially close to aircraft noise in flight corridors also is a factor.
The sound of freedom
Visitors to Crestview sometimes flinch when a C-130 Hercules lumbers overhead on final approach to Duke Field — sometimes so low that folks on the ground can wave to pilots.
Just as the roar of Eglin's F-35 fighters often surprise south county visitors, but not people who live there, north county residents are used to the four-engine turbo-prop planes.
It's just the "sound of freedom," they say. And for many, it's also the sound of the region's economic engine.
HISTORY LESSON: MILITARY IN NORTHWEST FLORIDA
The north county's eight-decade involvement with the military dates back to the 1930s and a Depression-era project that employed local workers to service Pensacola Naval Air Station planes landing in Crestview.
The aircraft, stationed at Crestview's old American Legion Field, joined planes from Maxwell Field Station in Montgomery in area exercises. The Maxwell planes eventually landed at a Valparaiso airfield, according to "Crestview: The Forkland,” by Betty Curenton and Claudia Patten.
The $2,000 allocated to improve and develop the Valparaiso field and build hangars for the Maxwell planes marked the origin of Eglin Field, a U.S. Army Air Corps training post.
World War II’s beginning in Europe accelerated Eglin’s importance and strengthened its relationship with the county seat. More than $1.25 million was spent, prior to America's entry in the war, to enhance Eglin's mission as an aerial gunnery school, the book states.
War expands Eglin's role
In post-Pearl Harbor days, the Doolittle Raiders rehearsed at Eglin Field for the first U.S. attack on the Japanese homeland. Their mission buoyed the nation’s spirits and fostered regional pride in the local base's role.
By then, Eglin armament experts were in the formative years of the base's mission, testing America's armaments. Among early experiments in guided missile technology, they reverse-engineered a captured German V1 flying bomb and enhanced it with Yankee expertise. One of those early weapons hangs from the Air Force Armament Museum’s ceiling at Eglin Air Force Base.
Economic impact begins
Recognizing the field's personnel would have local impact, a downtown Crestview building boom began, as "five new brick business houses" were constructed downtown before war came to America, according to the book.
When Eglin soldiers and airmen received weekend leave, their sights frequently turned north to Crestview. Main Street watering holes, eateries and movie houses swarmed with young men in khaki every weekend. Those who celebrated too much became well acquainted with the Hilton Hotel, present-day Desi's Restaurant, which rented cheap dormitory accommodations to soldiers who missed the last bus back to Eglin Field.
A local USO formed at the Crestview Woman's Club House in 1942; meanwhile, enlisted men could dance into the evening with locals at the Community Recreation Center. Area residents' donations funded the center.
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.