By Nathan Sparks, CEcD
One Okaloose EDC Executive Director
What a difference a year can make! This time last year, Okaloosa County was reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19. Nearly 13,000 people were out of work, and our county’s unemployment rate was an eye popping 13.7% - a number not experienced during the Great Recession or in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Fast forward to today. Okaloosa’s unemployment rate sits at 3.7%, currently the third lowest among Florida’s 67 counties, and the number of unemployed individuals in our county is 3,712. Companies of all stripes are hiring – with many offering signing bonuses and other inducements.
As I write this, Okaloosa’s roads, hotels, condos, restaurants and beaches are literally overflowing with out-of-state visitors, many eager to spend what remains of their mid-year financial windfall (aka Federal stimulus money) during the Memorial Day holiday weekend. In speaking with a local hotelier, I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard what a single room is commanding in the current market. It seems that those who weren’t so fortunate as to live in a place with a common sense approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic have emerged from their bunkers flush with cash after a year of hunkering down, eating in and watching Netflix. And for the sake of Okaloosa’s hospitality sector – second only to the defense sector in terms of local economic impact – thank goodness for that!
Florida as a whole has fared far better than projected too. In fact, what was initially expected to be a financially austere Legislative session in Tallahassee - with some early projections of a $4 billion revenue shortfall due to COVID sales tax impacts – somehow morphed into the passage of $101.5 billion budget, the state’s largest in history. Of course, Governor DeSantis will still have the opportunity to wield the veto pen over the coming weeks, but no one expects him to do anything akin to the “Great Veto of 2020”, when he slashed $1 billion as coronavirus uncertainty loomed large.
Unfortunately the improved state financial picture seemed to take some wind out of the sails of efforts to rethink Florida’s economic development toolkit. Specifically, reauthorization of Florida’s Qualified Target Industry (QTI) tax refund program (a performance-based program that incentivizes the creation of high quality, high wage jobs in highly valued targeted industries) fell flat. Likewise, the Jobs Growth Grant Fund failed to receive additional funding, and Enterprise Florida (Florida’s public-private economic development agency) wasn’t appropriated the $5 million in marketing dollars that Governor DeSantis had initially requested. There were some bright spots, however, such as the reauthorization of the Triumph Gulf Coast Trust Fund (removing the June 30, 2021 sunset date) and passage of the Purple Star Campus legislation cosponsored by our own Representative Patt Maney. Assuming the Governor signs the latter, public and private Florida schools that go “above and beyond” to welcome and support military families will have the opportunity to receive some deserved recognition. Certainly, all Okaloosa schools would be well advised to consider pursuing this!