Military, business jockey for space

CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle
In the shadow of the Brooks Bridge, Terry Hall of Tulsa, Okla., fishes Monday in the Santa Rosa Sound in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Hall lived in Fort Walton Beach before moving to care for family and plans to return.

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. — A fine alabaster sand cradles the edges of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where teal pockets of shallow ocean give way to deep, navy expanses.

In this paradise in Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast, tourism and the military have jockeyed for space.

“Fort Walton is bound on the south by coastal waters, bound on the west by (two small towns), bound to the north by Okaloosa County, and bound to the east by bays. We don’t have any room left,” said John Hofstad, who serves as the city’s utilities director.

Three Air Force installations mark the region: Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Duke Field.

“We have always been a military community,” said Hofstad, the son of a military man and a Hurlburt native.

In the 1920s, the Air Force laid claim to large portions of this humid Gulf Coast region, according to Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce president Ted Corcoran.

“They had free control,” he said, until roughly two decades ago, when tourism in Fort Walton Beach bloomed.

These days, hotel skeletons and metal cranes are as much a part of the area’s scenery as palm trees; flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, more common sights than camouflage.

The economy is balanced evenly by tourism and the military, officials said.

“Tourism has encroached (the military). They don’t have as much freedom as they used to,” Corcoran said.

In 1990, the population of Fort Walton Beach was 27,706. Ten years later, it had doubled to 40,601, according to U.S. Census figures.

A hodgepodge of reasons piqued non-military interest in the region, officials said. As southern Florida crowded, Fort Walton Beach grew. Aggressive marketing also pushed the region from anonymity, said Corcoran.

Yet, the boom has taxed the region. Congested roadways plague residents and affordable housing is nearly impossible to find, officials said.

Hemmed by hotels and restaurants and spurred by a Department of Defense dictate that calls for a larger role in the war on terror, one Wing at Fort Walton’s Hurlburt Field sought elbow room.

In October 2007, the Air Force 16th Special Operations Wing will assume ownership of Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis.

The transfer saves Cannon from closure as recommended by the Department of Defense in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round.