MIRAMAR BEACH — “We’re coming back.”
That was the crux of the message delivered Tuesday by Jerry Parrish, an economist with the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University, as he spoke to a crowd of hundreds of business, government and civic leaders at the Florida Power & Light Northwest Florida Economic Symposium at the Baytowne Conference Center at Sandestin.
“We’re recovering from COVID impacts,” said Parrish, who added that moving forward, Florida is “going to be growing jobs faster than the US rate, because Florida has made itself an attractive place for business.”
One way to improve an area’s economy is to increase its population, as he noted his prediction is that 850 people a day will now move to Florida.
For Northwest Florida, those population prospects are particularly bright, Parrish said.
Citing a University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research report delineating where the next 4 million people coming to Florida will settle — a number projected to be reached sometime between 2030 and 2035 — Parrish noted that Walton County will be the fourth-ranked while choice Santa Rosa County will be 10th.
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Walton will, in fact, be among the four counties that attract at least a part of nearly 40% of that anticipated growth, according to the data presented by Parrish.
Those people, along with those who are already in the area, will find jobs in a host of career fields, from healthcare to transportation to warehousing and agriculture to an array of technical and professional fields, and command average annual salaries of nearly $60,000, according to data prepared for Parrish by the University of West Florida Haas Center.
The Haas Center supplies the region and the state with workforce and survey research and economic impact modeling.
Further, those jobs will carry salaries ranging from a low of $43,827 to a high of nearly $81,000 per year, according to Haas Center data.
“We’ve got a lot of very talented people here,” Parrish told the symposium crowd.
“We’re creating more jobs on average than the US (as a whole),” added Parrish, who noted that Northwest Florida, particularly along the Interstate 10 corridor, is seeing an increase in manufacturing job opportunities.
Job statistics are particularly remarkable for Florida when considering that it has a massive array of jobs in the leisure and hospitality sectors, he said
But he added that those two sectors are lagging in terms of post-COVID recovery. His prediction is that the jobs lost in the hospitality and leisure sectors won’t be fully recovered until the first quarter of next year.
That recovery likely would be faster if not for people opting out of those fields, Parrish said.
“We’d have created more jobs (in hospitality and leisure) if we’d had willing workers,” he said. “The demand certainly is there for us already to be back. Our job creation could be monstrous if people would actually turn out for these jobs.”
But even as COVID-19 has hurt the state’s hospitality and leisure industries, it has also created economic development opportunities, Parrish said.
One thing that workers discovered during the pandemic is that they could work outside the office, opening up the possibility that they could live at or near a beach and still perform their job duties, he said. That dynamic could represent “the biggest hope we’ve had in rural economic development,” which has lagged elsewhere in the state.
But people contemplating such a move will routinely ask about digital data capabilities in the communities where they are considering settling, Parrish said. Walton County has been somewhat proactive in that arena, and is in the midst of having a countywide broadband system installed under a $3.5 million contract with WildStar Networks.
“These areas that have high-speed internet access, they’re going to win this game,” Parrish said. “They’re already winning this game.”