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Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay Counties

Destin, Florida
Destin’s white-sand beaches draw tourists from Atlanta, Nashville and much of the mid-South. [Photo: DestinChamber.com]

A Different Feel

In general, northwest Florida:

  • Is less urban and more Southern in character than the rest of Florida.
  • Includes a higher percentage of African-Americans and a lower percentage of Hispanics than the rest of Florida.
  • Tends to be more politically conservative than the rest of Florida; McCain garnered from 59% to 72% of the votes in the three counties in the 2008 presidential election.
  • Has a higher percentage of people who identify themselves as religious; Protestants make up a significantly higher share of the religious population than in most of Florida’s larger urban areas.
  • Has a higher percentage of residents who are native Floridians than elsewhere in the state. Smaller percentages of the population are foreign-born than elsewhere in Florida; fewer residents speak a language other than English at home.
  • Has an economy that’s more influenced by military spending than other areas of Florida.

Panama City-Bay County

Panama City Bay County Florida


73% 85% 80%


22 12 16
Hispanic 3.7 3.5 20
City population: 38,533

County population: 163,984

Notable: Nearly 47% of the population of Panama City earns less than $35,000 a year, compared to about 36% of Florida’s population overall.

> In a Nutshell

Bay County is betting big that the world will beat a path to its door, constructing a $318-million international airport scheduled to open next year at a 75,000-acre West Bay green site that’s also blueprinted to contain one of the country’s biggest mixed-use planned communities. Meanwhile, Port Panama City is looking to handle a bigger share of cargo from abroad; St. Joe Co. is re-creating ruralism at River Camps; and retail developer Simon Property has spread the welcome mat at Panama City Beach with upscale Pier Park. The issue now: Will it all pan out as planned?

Pier Park in Panama City Beach, Florida
The upscale Pier Park complex in Panama City Beach. [Photo: Simon Property Group]

Fort Walton Beach - Okaloosa County

Fort Walton Beach Okaloosa County Florida


85% 80%


9.6 16
Hispanic 5.3 5.7 20
City population: 20,100

County population: 181,499

Notable: 90% of county residents 25 and over had at least graduated from high school; the percentage of the population with some college or a college degree far outstrips Florida and national averages. Nearly 80% of the population was living in the same residence one year earlier.

> In a Nutshell

Okaloosa County is serious about defense, a $6-billion economic impact generator centered by Eglin Air Force Base, the largest military base in the world. And it’s serious about education, with an innovative secondary school system that’s become a Florida model. But it’s also earnest about fun — inviting visitors to walk the beaches, watch dolphins play, fish from charter boats and line up golf shots at a dozen courses. Not everyone, however, interprets the roar of jet fighters overhead as the soothing sound of security. And finding the right formula for balancing skyline development with preservation of natural attributes remains challenging.

Pensacola-Escambia County

Pensacola Escambia Florida


65% 71% 80%


31 23 16
Hispanic 2 3 20

City population: 54,283

County population: 305,214

Notable: In the over-45 age groups, the city outstrips national and Florida profile; there are more households without children than Florida or national averages. The city’s population has declined by about 4% since 2000.

> Volunteering

Blue Angels
The Blue Angels flight team is stationed at Forrest Sherman Field at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. [Photo: U.S. Navy]

Between 2004 and 2007, Pensacola had an average volunteer rate of 22.4%. Pensacola residents also volunteered an average of 24.9 service hours annually per resident. That level puts Pensacola ahead of Lakeland in volunteer rate, but behind Sarasota, Cape Coral, Daytona Beach and Palm Bay.

> In a Nutshell

Pensacola is a combination of colonial history dating back 450 years to the hurricane-aborted Tristan de Luna settlement attempt, of white-sand tourism, and of military investment that pioneered pinning wings on sailors. But it’s also home to cutting-edge research by world scientists, on projects including developing wheeled rovers to explore the lunar surface. The city’s challenge today is finding the political structure and economic development strategy that will accommodate its differences — and lift the fortunes of the sizable segment of the city’s population that’s economically disadvantaged and educationally underserved.

Economic Life

> Driver’s Seat: Defense

The military is the 900-pound gorilla in the economy of northwest Florida. Eglin Air Force Base — at more than 450,000 acres — spans parts of Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. The base employs more than 8,500 military and approximately 4,500 civilians, with an additional 2,200 jobs due to move to Eglin under the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission changes.

Approximately 30,000 military and another 30,000 defense-support personnel are spread among Naval Air Station Pensacola, NAS Whiting Field and Eglin Air Force Base and the other bases Eglin encompasses. According to a 2008 analysis by the University of West Florida’s Haas Center for Business Research, about 35% of northwest Florida regional output is driven by defense spending, compared to 18% for northeast Florida, 5% for central Florida and 3% for south Florida. In Okaloosa County, for example, defense-related spending accounts for 73% of economic activity. Another example: In 2004 in Escambia County, the federal government spent $9,294 per capita, compared to $6,599 in Miami and $7,800 in Duval and Pinellas counties.

The Andrews Institute
The Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze has helped scores of amateur and professional athletes. [Photo: Bpm/www.birdwell.us]

> Other Economic Drivers

  • Tourism: While Destin may not have the national profile of Fort Lauderdale, the Okaloosa County town is synonymous with “beach” in Atlanta, Nashville and much of the mid-South. Northwest Florida’s beaches attract some 4.5 million visitors each year. The area is also rich in history — Pensacola has flown the flags of Spain, France, England, the Confederacy and the U.S.
  • Panama City-Bay County International Airport: The relocated airport, the first international airport under construction in the U.S. since Denver’s, may further development in the region more than any other single factor.
  • Port of Pensacola: The region’s largest port, which is both a Foreign Trade Zone and Enterprise Zone, handles agricultural products, cement, paper, power plant and power generation equipment, animal feed, construction supplies and frozen cargo.
  • Port Panama City: Formerly dominated by traffic in wood pulp, the port, a Foreign Trade Zone, now handles manufactured goods, steel, machinery and feed products.

IHMC’s PISCES machine
IHMC’s PISCES machine helps users swim long distances, often stealthily, such as during Navy SEAL missions. It works by augmenting a swimmer’s natural motions. [Photo: Bpm/www.birdwell.us]
> Assets
  • Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (Pensacola): This high-concept, world-class research institution focuses on science and technology that improves the interaction between humans and machines.
  • The Andrews Research and Education Institute, a center for sports medicine, houses research facilities in biomechanics, physiology and surgical materials testing.
  • Workforce: The presence of many retired military personnel and their families creates a solid, talented workforce whose skills impact the effectiveness of both commercial ventures and the region’s educational and research institutions.
  • Research Capability: Numerous military missions involve research, training or both, including the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Lab in Pensacola. The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City alone has a staff of some 700 researchers and scientists who work on systems using air, ground and underwater unmanned vehicles. The Veterans Administration DOD Joint Ambulatory Care Clinic will contribute to the advancement of the region’s growing medical device industry. At Eglin, the Air Armament Center is responsible for developing, testing and deploying all air-delivered weapons.
  • Renewable Energy: The region’s pine forests — some of the largest in the world — have drawn interest as a renewable source of biofuels. Pensacola is also GE’s wind energy manufacturing center and boasts a Waste Management landfill that converts methane gas to electricity. Green Circle Bio Energy has built a large, technologically advanced wood pellet facility in Jackson County, just west of where Florida borders Georgia and Alabama.
  • Higher Education: Along with the University of West Florida, which operates throughout the region, both FSU and the University of Florida operate in the area as well. The University of Florida Research and Engineering Education Facility in Okaloosa County offers graduate-degree programs in electrical, computer and aerospace engineering.
  • Florida’s Great Northwest: The region cooperates under the banner of Florida’s Great Northwest, which has developed a well-considered, targeted strategy for how best to capitalize on the area’s resources.
  • Culture: Pensacola boasts a symphony, opera and ballet company. Other towns in the region offer a range of cultural offerings.

> High-Profile Companies

  • ActiGraph: Designs high-tech life sciences devices. One of at least three successful businesses founded by entrepreneur Paul Hsu.
  • Avalex Technologies: Conducts aerial mapping and video.
  • St. Joe: The Jacksonville real estate company has extensive land holdings in the area.
  • Gulf Power: CEO Susan Story has risen to prominence in statewide business circles.
  • AppRiver: The company specializes in secure e-mail programs, including protection from spam and viruses.
  • Baptist Health Care and Sacred Heart Health System: The two non-profits operate throughout the region, together employing more than 10,000.
Pensacola's Saenger Theatre
Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites.

Quality of Life

> Strengths

  • Cost of Living: By most measurements, Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay counties have lower costs of living than state and national averages.
  • Small-Town Virtues: The higher incidence of natives in many communities’ populations helps foster a stronger sense of community. The cities are less congested, as reflected in travel times to work, which are more than 25% below state averages.
  • Schools: Both the Bay and Okaloosa county school districts received “A” grades from the Florida Department of Education. Students in grades 4 through 10 in Okaloosa schools didn’t rank lower than third in the state in reading and math scores, based on the percentage showing proficiency. County students ranked first in both math and reading in grades 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10. The Okaloosa district also pioneered the CHOICE program that provides high-skills job training to high school students, enabling them to earn certification for certain in-demand technical jobs as they complete high school. The program has become a model statewide.
  • Young Leadership: Pensacola, in particular, has young businesspeople in its leadership ranks. Pensacola Young Professionals is a 500-member group that’s actively involved in civic life.

> Challenges

  • Politics: Consensus remains a big challenge in Pensacola and throughout northwest Florida. There’s a stark ideological divide between the rural, northern parts of the counties and the developed southern areas, including the beaches. But rural politics too often dominates local commissions.
  • Downtown: Pensacola’s downtown, which has the largest concentration of independent retail in the region, is struggling to maintain quality retail in this economy, especially amid competition from nearby Destin and Baldwin County in Alabama.
  • Redevelopment: Downtown Pensacola also suffers as a result of city parochialism that may soften after a spate of progressive candidates won seats on the City Council last November. For example, the City Council refused to consider expanding the boundaries of the Downtown Improvement Board to include more of the west side. The area, largely African-American, will be crucial to downtown redevelopment as the city finally gets rid of the downtown sewage treatment plant and replaces it with a 40-acre maritime park.
  • Crime: Among Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay counties, the only county where “crime risk indexes” are consistently above average for Florida is Escambia. Both Pensacola and some smaller communities like Molino and Century have risk profiles much higher than state averages in most categories. In other parts of the region, however, crime risk indices are lower. Okaloosa County ranks 52 out of 67 counties in violent crimes, with 369.9 per 100,000 residents, compared with a statewide rate of 705.5 per 100,000.
  • Transportation: Air travel to and from the region is still difficult and expensive — a fact that could change as the new international airport takes shape.
  • Defense-heavy: The military’s presence is so dominant that it could hinder the emergence of a more well-rounded economy.
> Why I Live Here: Ken Ford

Ken Ford
Ken Ford

Historic Pensacola, where the streets still bear the names given by Spanish settlers, is home to fine restaurants, a famous fish market, a vibrant arts community, quality healthcare, an accessible waterfront and a world-class research institute. Its human-scale neighborhoods coupled with an affordable and stimulating downtown urban environment provide an attractive habitat for both young professionals and “empty nesters.”

Over the last 450 years, Pensacola has had time to develop a patina — it enjoys an authenticity that cannot be artificially re-created. Pensacola’s long history coupled with an interesting mix of people and lifestyles has created a place with sense of place. Not a perfect place — but a real place.

I have had the good fortune to live in many great places, and yet Pensacola has, with the exception of a couple year hiatus in Silicon Valley, been my home now for more than 20 years. I first discovered Pensacola through the Navy and years later, having the opportunity to locate virtually anywhere, made my home in Pensacola.

It has become commonplace to observe that this or that city is at a “tipping point” — they all always are. In fact, tipping points can tip either way. That said, I see Pensacola’s future tipping in a very positive direction.

Dr. Ken Ford is the founder and CEO of the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition.