EGLIN AFB — The arrival of the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) more than a year ago has been a welcome boost to a slumping local economy.
The group, which officially opened its cantonment in October 2011, should pump about $3.2 billion into Okaloosa County’s economy between 2010 and 2016, according to a report from the Haas Center at the University of West Florida.
It’s enough to offset the departure of 50 F-15s from the Air Force’s 33rd Fighter Wing in 2009, which will result in a loss of $3.3 billion during the same time period, the report said.
Although the report calls it a nearly even trade, the area felt the economic boost when Army families began arriving from Fort Bragg, N.C., last year because the economy was so depressed, said Rod Lewis, director of the Haas Center.
Their arrival came on the heels of the housing bubble burst in 2008 and then the loss of the F-15s in 2009.
“It was a double whammy,” Lewis said.
After two years of significantly negative population growth in Okaloosa County, the 7th Special Forces Group brought about 6,000 new people, including 2,200 soldiers and their families, to the area.
People had been used to operating in the slump, Lewis said. “Then, boom.”
The county has felt the impact, especially in Crestview where most of the families settled.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” said Kay Rasmussen, interim president of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County. “The community has embraced the families moving into our neighborhoods.”
She described a ripple effect on the local economy as the new families started purchasing and leasing homes and taking advantage of retail.
Also, many of the soldiers’ spouses opened small businesses, primarily in the Crestview area, Rasmussen said.
The departure of the F15s, the arrival of the Special Forces Group and then the arrival of the first F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base were all called for in a Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) report in 2005.
The F-35s — the first of which arrived at Eglin in July 2011 — have brought about 1,300 people to the community, said Col. Tony Douglas, vice commander of the Air Force’s 96th Test Wing, which oversees operations at the base.
“It has been a big transition (for Eglin),” Douglas said.
It’s going well, though, he said.
At a sprawling 724 square miles — about the size of Rhode Island — Eglin is the Department of Defense’s largest installation and was ready to absorb the new missions, Douglas said. The community also welcomed the new personnel with open arms.
“It’s been great, not just for TEAM Eglin, but for the local community as well,” he said. “We’ve got more people coming into what is, in my opinion, a very exciting and diverse installation.”
Many people had expectations that the new Army jobs would be low pay and would not offset the loss of the F-15s, which relocated about 2,000 airmen, Lewis said.
“They were a bit afraid. The Army’s coming. The Army’s coming,” he said. “But these people are very well-paid. This is not a private first class making $20,000 a year.”
The 7th Special Forces soldiers are largely well-educated and earn $70,000 to $90,000 a year.
“That’s quite a different (economic) impact when you look at it,” he said.
Lewis said 65 to 75 percent of the families settled in north Okaloosa County.
The soldiers deploy regularly and military spouses wanted to live close to each other for support. They also are a tight-knit group, having all been stationed together at Fort Bragg for years.
“Crestview got out ahead,” Lewis said. “They were very welcoming and worked to promote Crestview as the place to be.”
Many of the families just didn’t look anywhere else, he said.
Lewis said he was somewhat surprised more families didn’t move south because housing was much more affordable closer to the beach and Choctawhatchee Bay than it would have been before the housing market crashed.
He said the lingering question about the military’s economic impact remains what level of growth the area will see from the F-35 program.
At one point, the Air Force estimated there would be 107 planes at Eglin. Twenty-two jets have arrived so far.
The effects have been positive, but just how much economic benefit will come from the program is yet to be determined, Lewis said.
“They are just not here in the numbers we initially thought they would be,” he said.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.