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.

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

The local economy’s recovery means less long-term unemployment in the area than elsewhere in the state, Sumblin said.

To combat what long-term unemployment there was, JobsPlus and the Workforce Development Board embarked on a retraining program. Programs included on-the-job training to prepare existing and new workers for new positions at area companies including BAE Systems and L3 Crestview Aerospace.

New workers went through a crash course of intensive training in a mobile vocational school brought to Crestview through a grant. The vigorous curriculum mirrored work conditions, with students required to meet strict attendance and academic progress criteria.

Toward the multi-week training’s end, students were integrated into the employers' businesses, spending some of the workday side-by-side with experienced employees.

Construction looking up

Skill saws’ whines and hammers’ thuds again echo over local neighborhoods as subdivisions rise in Crestview and Baker. They herald the local construction industry’s revival.

"They are seeing a real incline of new building in our community," Sumblin said. "That was one sector that was really downsized during the difficult time."

"We used to be an association with almost 700 members, and we're down to 300 right now," said Alan Baggett, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association for Okaloosa and Walton Counties. "It's taken a toll."

Some former members turned to other professions, while others downsized their businesses, often assuming the jobs of manager and laborer, Baggett said.

"A lot of your builders are doing dual roles: they're the ones swinging the hammer," he said.

However, the local economy’s uptick has brightened the building industry’s outlook. Crestview real estate agent Dino Sinopoli said planned developments that lay dormant during the recession have sprung to life.

(See related article on local real estate on page C1.)

"In the last several months, I've talked to several members who say, 'I've gotten too busy. I'm working seven days a week and I have to start hiring somebody,'" Baggett said. "That's an encouraging thing that we're hearing."

An announcement that construction of what could be as many as 1,000 or more housing units at Hurlburt Field has been welcome news for area contractors, Baggett said.

"That is going to be an opportunity for people to find some work," he said.

A good outlook

Sumblin said her agency has been working with the county Economic Development Council to provide workforce information for potential employers considering moving to or expanding in Okaloosa County.

Workforce Development is also working with educators as a liaison with local fast-growing, high-wage industries, including health care, information technology and communications, and manufacturing.

"We're looking at schools' training growth to guide them as to what kind of curriculum they can provide, not just post-secondary but the K-through-12 schools, too," Sumblin said.

"We work very closely with the CHOICE program," she said, referring to the Okaloosa County School District middle and high school industry-guided vocational training program.

"We see things turning around," Sumblin said.

Local business leaders agree.

"We in the chamber of commerce are expecting things here to start bucking the trend," Mitchell said. "We're expecting things here will be better than the rest of nation."

Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.