Crestview Readies for an Influx of Population, Money, Influence
Poised for Growth The major economic center for Okaloosa County, Crestview anticipates a new population boom By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
Civil engineer Jim Weeks is standing near a conference table at his downtown Crestview office, examining an aerial map posted on a wall. The map shows the rooftops of homes and businesses to the right and the vast greenery of treetops to the left. At the bottom is the bustling gray line of Interstate 10 and a glimpse of the Shoal River.
“Fox Valley is right here,” Weeks says, pointing to the treetops. Fox Valley is a 130-home subdivision, with single-family homes that sell on average for $223,000, according to data compiled by Crestview Sales Force. “We’ve built Phase I right here, and Phase II here,” Weeks says, eyeballing what was undeveloped land six years ago. When it’s completed, Fox Valley will have more than 500 homes.
The development of Fox Valley, with its smooth lawns, rolling hills, skyscraping pine trees and proximity to the Foxwood Country Club, demonstrates the steady growth that the city of Crestview and its surrounding communities have experienced over the past 15 years.
Buffered in the south by the drive-through commerce of I-10 and the reliable, well-paying jobs offered at Eglin Air Force Base, Crestview is poised for more growth because of its affordable housing, proximity to the coast and the Air Force base.
“Crestview is a small town that has been hit by some fast growth,” says Todd Stephens, the owner of Southern American Homes, a Crestview-based home-building company. Stephens left a home-building job in South Florida for Crestview in 2007.
City cheerleaders, including Crestview Chamber of Commerce Director Wayne Harris, also turn to a map when they want to pitch Crestview’s growth potential.
Okaloosa County, where Crestview resides, has 41 percent of its land swallowed by the sprawling, 724-square mile Eglin Air Force base in the south. There are slivers of land just south of the base that make up the cities of Niceville, Destin and Fort Walton Beach.
But those communities, Harris and other boosters say, cannot expand; they are locked in by the base to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.
Meanwhile, 30 minutes north of the beach communities, is Crestview, which has no barriers constraining its growth. There are thousands of acres of undeveloped land in the greater Crestview area, which stretches right up to the Alabama state line.
“There’s a tremendous amount of land there,” Harris says. “There’s always going to be affordable housing available.”
All of this economic bluster over available land might seem a little premature, given the state of Florida’s weakened economy, if it weren’t for the rumbling economic engine to its south — Eglin Air Force Base, which is expecting an additional 4,500 military personnel by 2016, bringing a total of 11,000 people to the area, including family members.
“Of course, the military is 70 percent of our economy and everything after that,” says Harris, who, like so many other Crestview residents, retired from the military. “It’s been significant.”
Crestview’s fortunes are closely tied with Eglin, so when the base is growing, the city grows. The military is Crestview’s biggest benefactor, with tourism a distant second.
“A lot of hopes are pinned on (the military) in terms of driving our economic engine,” Weeks says. He remembers a time when tourism was a bigger focus for Crestview. “Five or six years ago, when things were really booming, the military wasn’t all we talked about. We’ve really shifted horses in the last couple of years.” Weeks is also excited about Florida A&M University’s plans to build a pharmacy school at an abandoned factory downtown.
Some of the military personnel arriving at Eglin are the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, otherwise known as the Green Berets. They are being moved from Fort Bragg, N.C., where many have been deployed overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. Historically, their specialty has been Latin American countries, and many speak multiple languages.
Not only does this bring jobs to Crestview, Harris says, but high-paying jobs. And even better: The Army includes a housing allowance, which increases with rank.
“We are very blessed,” Harris says.
A Small Town
With a population of about 20,000 people, Crestview is still a small town.
One can park along Main Street at its historic downtown for free — parking meters are non-existent and space is plentiful. The greater Crestview area, which includes smaller towns to the north, such as Baker and Laurel Hill, has 85,000 residents, Harris says.
The city has basic amenities, with an assortment of shops, restaurants and big-box stores such as Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. But there is no shopping mall, and the city is just now getting a 10-screen movie theater. It’s tough for Crestview to compete for new retail with seaside resort towns like Destin that offer a wealthier population eager to spend.
Still, the chief concern over Crestview’s growth, residents say, is preserving the small-town lifestyle while encouraging expansion. One common complaint is the need for a highway bypass so commuters and tourists who drive on State Road 85 to get to the coast or Eglin Air Force Base don’t drive through town and clog the city’s main street.
“We’ve needed a bypass for 10 or 20 years,” gripes Billy Teel, a real estate and insurance agent who has lived in Crestview since the 1940s, a time when there were more dirt roads than paved ones. Republican state Sen. Durrell Peaden was born in Crestview and recalls the safe, nurturing community of a town so small that nobody ever locked their doors. “It was a late-bloomer,” he says. “(In the 1960s), they had to recruit doctors and dentists to come here.”
Starting in the late 1980s, more retail, restaurants and hotels developed at the intersection of I-10 and State Road 85. “It has just exploded,” Peaden says. One sign Crestview has arrived? A Starbucks now sits at that intersection, popular with locals and drive-through motorists.
Though Crestview has a small population, Stephens, the homebuilder, argues that it should be treated as part of nearby communities such as Destin, Fort Walton and Niceville.
“You’re in a small town but you’re really not,” Stephens says. “You’re part of a bigger place, you just happen to be in one of these smaller cities or villages.”
Weeks moved to Crestview in 2004 from Tallahassee because it was “growing like gangbusters,” he says. In 2004 and 2005, he was working on 20 engineering projects at one time, fueled by the demand for new single-family subdivisions, apartments and retail centers. Now his office handles two to three projects at a time.
Just like the rest of the state, Crestview’s growth has slowed as its real estate market slackened.
“It’s been significant,” says Harris, the Chamber of Commerce director. “I did not realize how much of an impact the building industry really has.” Homes stood empty as buyers vanished; subdivisions such as Fox Valley stopped growing rapidly as credit dried up; and signs advertising short sales appeared on front lawns. But Realtors now say the area is showing signs of recovery.
Tourism was an ingredient in Crestview’s last population boom. Developers who came to the region for vacation targeted Crestview as a city poised for growth. They traded in suitcases for briefcases and went to work building subdivisions.
“It was really a gold rush,” Teel says. “There were a good number of houses selling for $300,000 that were $250,000 houses. You’d have two offers on the same house.”
For the last two years, business has been “terrible,” Teel says. “You’d leave and call up your office just to make sure your telephone is working,” he jokes.
Crestview has escaped some of the economic ills that have devastated other parts of the state.
“Our unemployment rate is nothing compared to what Florida’s unemployment rate is,” Harris says. In October 2009, the state’s overall unemployment rate reached 11.2 percent, while Okaloosa County had a 7.4 percent jobless rate. Harris says that’s because the military is one of the few industries that didn’t take a huge hit from the economic downturn.
Room to Grow
Families with military ties are still the backbone of Crestview’s population. But increasingly, more people are moving to town for its business opportunities.
Michael and Elizabeth Skrovanek and their 8-year-old daughter, Natasha, moved to Crestview in 2008 from Richmond, Va. Seeking a career change after getting laid off, Michael Skrovanek wanted to move closer to the Florida Gulf Coast’s warm waters.
Through a broker, he learned that Custom Production, a Crestview bicycle parts manufacturing company, was for sale. The location was ideal, Skrovanek says. It has great schools, is a short drive to the coast, doesn’t have the high home prices of coastal areas, and offers the opportunity for the Skrovaneks to run their own business.
“It’s an incredible quality of life,” Skrovanek says. “It seemed to come together and make sense. Crestview in particular is really the growth engine for Okaloosa County.”
Custom Production, which sits in an industrial park less than a mile from the Bob Sikes Airport, makes the rings that bicycle chains go through and other aluminum components used for industries such as health care and aerospace. The city is working to encourage more businesses to relocate to the industrial park, where they can get tax breaks for being in a business enterprise zone. It’s part of an effort to diversify Crestview’s economy beyond defense contractors, the city’s biggest private employers.
“A lot of growth is happening here, and this industrial park was an incredible opportunity,” says Skrovanek, Custom Production’s vice president and general manager. (His wife is the president). “There are very few runways for this type of commercial activity.”
Stephens, the homebuilder, came to Crestview to work for regional investors who wanted to start a home-building company. When that didn’t work out, he chose to stay. He started Southern American Homes, which closed on six houses its first year in business. Stephens specializes in building three- and four-bedroom, single-family homes that sell for between $180,000 and $250,000.
“I’ve yet to finish a house before it was sold,” he says.
Stephens currently lives in the Destin area but says he is moving soon to Crestview.
“I feel good enough about (its growth prospects) to build my own house in Crestview, and I could live just about anywhere I want to in the Emerald Coast,” he says.