Local unemployment rate lower than rest of state
December 25, 2010 7:25 PM Dusty Ricketts Daily News
For all of 2010, Okaloosa and Walton counties had two of the lowest unemployment rates in Florida. One local economist predicts that things will be even better next year.
By the late summer of 2011, the two counties will have the lowest unemployment rates in the state, said David Goetsch, vice president for community relations and workforce development at Northwest Florida State College.
"If we're not the lowest, we'll be right there in the top three, and I'm predicting we'll have the best across the state," Goetsch said. "I'm staying with that. As I've looked across the state, I don't see any other counties that have that three-legged stool that we have. I think you're going to see us doing better than places like Orange County."
Even with tourism down this year because of the BP oil spill and ongoing economic struggles, Goetsch said the three pillars of the military, a large retirement community and defense contracting will stabilize the local economy.
For the entire year, Okaloosa and Walton counties have been among the five counties with the lowest unemployment rates in Florida. The two counties started the year with an unemployment rate of just under 10 percent. By April, the figures had improved to 7.6 percent for Okaloosa and 7.8 percent for Walton.
The two counties remained near that level or better for the rest of the year. Only sparsely populated Liberty County consistently had a lower jobless rate.
"What has suffered the most in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties has been retail and tourists," Goetsch said. "People came in fewer numbers and those that came spent less. Who would have ever thought that an O'Charley's restaurant would go out of business at the biggest intersection in Destin?"
Eglin Air Force Base long has been the largest economic driver in Okaloosa County. Goetsch said the arrival of the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training program next year will improve the county's unemployment rate.
"The active-duty military presence is not affected in a negative sense by unemployment throughout the country," Goetsch said. "In fact, it's probably affected in a positive sense because one of the things that happens in a down economy is military enlistments go up."
Goetsch illustrated the impact the military has on a local community by looking at Naval Air Station Pensacola, which used to have nearly the same influence on employment in Escambia County as Eglin has had in Okaloosa. Over the years, NAS Pensacola has been cut back substantially by the Department of Defense, and Escambia County no longer has that to rely on to stabilize its economy.
As a result, unemployment rates for Escambia were higher in each of the first 11 months of the year than they were in Okaloosa, Walton and even Santa Rosa counties.
Santa Rosa County's unemployment rate also was lower than the state average in 2010. Clearwire Corp. announced earlier this year that it plans to add 500 jobs to its Milton call center, which will make it the largest private employer in the county.
"In Santa Rosa County, which is a slightly smaller economy, that's a big deal," Goetsch said. "Five-hundred jobs would be a big deal here. I think you're going to see Santa Rosa County take an uptick. If you compare them to Leon County or Escambia County, I think they're going to do quite good."