Okaloosa County Keeps Flying High

Military-related spending pours billions into the region



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Camouflage isn’t the only thing green about the military in Okaloosa County. National defense dollars flow into nearly every corner of the local economy, accounting for about two-thirds of production and spending in Okaloosa.

The money comes in through Eglin Air Force Base and the complex of defense contractors that surround it, as well as nearby military installations and a community of military retirees who call the area home. Together, they’re responsible for $7.5 billion in economic impact.

Military realignments 10 years ago contributed in part to that robust defense spending in Okaloosa. Now growth is leveling off and the Department of Defense is making additional budget cuts, so military spending is expected to decline.

Maintainers and aircrew load luggage onto a B-1B Lancer prior to the aircraft leaving Eglin Air Force Base and returning to its home station.
Courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.
 

However, local economic leaders expect the losses to be mitigated somewhat by the nature of the military mission at Eglin and by growth in other industries such as aeronautics.

“It’s not going to feel like it did a couple of years ago,” said Rick Harper, an economist with the University of West Florida who has studied defense spending in Florida. “I don’t see anything in the near-to-medium future that would threaten the vitality of military spending in Okaloosa County.”

 

Thousands of Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors

The military has a huge presence in the Florida Panhandle and nowhere more so than in Okaloosa County.

Eglin Air Force Base is the largest military installation in the United States and is home to nearly 10,000 service members, 4,000 civilian employees and nearly 3,000 contractors. The base covers more than 640 square miles, according to the Department of Defense.

Among the units at Eglin are the Air Force’s 96th Test Wing and 33rd Fighter Wing (Joint Strike Fighter training), the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group and 6th Ranger Training Battalion and the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal school.

Next door to Eglin is Hurlburt Field, where the 1st Special Operations Wing is based. According to the Department of Defense, there are another 8,000 service members and 2,000 civilian employees at Hurlburt.

In addition to the two major Air Force installations, Okaloosa also serves as a base for the 870th Engineering Company of the Florida National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard Station Destin.

Spreading out from either side of Okaloosa, there are Navy installations in Escambia County just to the west and Air Force and Navy bases in Bay County to the east.

“You add all that up and you have one heck of a center of gravity for military activity,” said Sal Nodjomian, retired commander of the 96th Test Wing, current member of the Niceville City Council and executive vice president of Matrix Design Group, an engineering firm that does work for the DoD.

 

Drawn to the Bases

Nodjomian said the military missions associated with Eglin and nearby bases are incredibly diverse, from air and ground training to high-tech and research to special operations. That, and the sheer size of the military presence, has helped build a robust community of defense contractors in the county.

There are more than 300 defense contractors located in Okaloosa County, including seven of the 10 largest in the country, according to Nathan Sparks, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County.

They include Boeing, Lockheed Martin and L-3 Crestview Aerospace, with a combined 2,000 employees between them. In fact, five of the 10 top employers in Okaloosa County are major defense-related businesses working on DoD projects.

Nodjomian said there are three factors that draw the defense industry to Okaloosa County: proximity to the military units that need their products and services, the low cost of doing business in a military-friendly state and the labor pool.

He said many service members — like him — choose to spend the last years of their careers in the Panhandle and then stay on after retirement because of the quality of life. That makes for a “fabulous labor pool” from which defense contractors can easily draw.

Total number of military and military-related jobs in Okaloosa County: more than 70,000, according to Sparks, with the EDC.