Discover why the Emerald Coast of Fort Walton Beach, Destin and the other charming communities of Okaloosa County may be right for you.
The sugar sand beaches and emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico capture the eyes and hearts of anyone visiting the Florida coast, so it’s no surprise that Okaloosa County has seen consistent growth over the past decade. Many people visited as military officers or tourists but never forgot the gorgeous region and returned to its shores.
Besides the region’s stunning natural beauty, here are nine reasons people choose to move to Fort Walton Beach and the other outstanding communities of Okaloosa County.
1. Enjoy the Best of All Worlds Here
The Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin metro population fluctuates as two major military bases, Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field, operate there, and over 200,000 tourists visit during the summer.
Founder and owner
A Gift To Africa
“It’s like you live in two different worlds as the year turns,” says Sabina Zunguze, founder and owner of a local shop and social enterprise named A Gift To Africa.
Zunguze, originally from Zimbabwe, moved to Tampa after her husband accepted a job there, but the couple longed for a quieter life. They moved to Fort Walton four years ago and haven’t looked back.
“It’s close to the big cities you want to go to,” says Zunguze, who enjoys traveling to New Orleans and Atlanta. “Yet you’re in a beautiful place.”
Another couple, Jefferey and Melissa Brown, also moved to Fort Walton to be closer to their son in the military, and daughter, a new Gainesville resident. As health coaches, they’re thrilled with Fort Walton’s natural landscape and have been impressed by the community’s theater group, the Stage Crafters.
“We’ve enjoyed the opera in Pensacola and theater here in Fort Walton,” Jefferey Brown says. “We just try to take advantage of everything that the locale has to offer.”
If one ever needs to take a break from the beach life, they can jet elsewhere from Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) or the Pensacola International Airport.
2. Take Part in an Active Lifestyle
Situated between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay, Fort Walton Beach is a warm, wet environment with lush, shady bogs and breezy beaches.
“Because the weather is so good, people like to do a lot of things in their backyards,” Zunguze says. “It’s nice for people who like to garden and who like the outdoors.”
Enjoying a day on the green, at places like Shalimar Pointe Golf Club, is one of the ways residents take advantage of their natural surroundings.
Fishing is another popular pastime, as Destin is the closest port to the Gulf of Mexico’s 100-fathom curve where large fish like red snapper, tuna and marlin linger. “Food here is great; it’s always fresh,” Zunguze says.
With so many reasons to be on the water, Okaloosa County’s residents are constantly face to face with marine wildlife and are aware of how fragile its ecosystem is.
“The community efforts for environmental concerns are huge, as you would imagine for a seaside town that’s really heavily dependent on tourism,” Jefferey Brown says.
The city is keen on using sustainable development practices to curb erosion, while its residents are the guardians of the beach, cleaning and doing as little as possible to disturb natural habitats.
3. Find a Supportive, Engaged Community
Okaloosa County’s economy has many small businesses in the accommodation, food and retail industries, so when summer ends, shopkeepers count on their neighbors to carry them through the off-season.
“There’s a lot [of people] that support the local businesses,” Zunguze says. “There’s more people [here] going to support those kinds of places.”
Not only are they engaged in the community but in the local government as well. “You get lots of people who go to the Chamber of Commerce to meet others who are in the same thing,” she says. “You form some kind of tribe, you know, people you can relate to.”
As residents work hand in hand with their town’s leaders, local issues, like traffic congestion and beautifying the city, are heard and acted upon. “It’s really unique,” Melissa Brown says. “It’s neat they really want to hear from their citizens to hear what else they can do.”
4. Score Connections Quickly
You can find “your people” in Okaloosa County by tapping into a number of networking groups or clubs.
For the business-minded, Chamber of Commerce events are abundant and diverse in cities like Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Crestview and Niceville. Young professionals, eager to jumpstart their careers, can find several events within their local chamber that are aimed directly at young people and networking activities.
For the active bunch, Northwest Florida Track Club is a group of fitness enthusiasts who support track and running events in the region. Meanwhile, golfers can test their skills and meet new people at Emerald Bay Golf Club in Destin, Fort Walton Beach Golf Club and Shalimar Pointe Golf Club. And for those who like the water and the good life, Fort Walton Yacht Club might be ideal for you.
This region is known for its military installations, and groups for veterans and active service members include VFW Post 7674, American Legion Post 235 and the AMVETS Post 78 in Valparaiso. Also in the area are social clubs like Moose Lodge 2193 and Kiwanis Club of Fort Walton Beach, as well as Rotary Clubs in Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Niceville.
Great volunteer opportunities can be found at places like Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, Alaqua Animal Refuge and Healing Paws for Warriors. And for the kids, one of the largest after-school venues in the region is Boys & Girls Clubs of the Emerald Coast in Fort Walton Beach.
5. Discover Affordable Living
Nicknamed “The Camellia City,” Fort Walton Beach is part of Florida’s Emerald Coast, and this friendly community has a history of drawing newcomers – from military families to snowbirds. The cost of living is an attractive 92.3 compared to the national average of 100, and the average household income is nearly $60,000. The median value of homes in Fort Walton Beach is $352,700 (Zillow). Beyond Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa County offers plenty of charming communities to call home. Want to learn more? Check out this link below.
6. Thrive In a Strong and Diverse Economy
Tourism is a key sector of the economy, and so is the military. Two major Air Force bases border the area – Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base. Another strong industry is advanced manufacturing, led by the Boeing Company, InDyne and Precision Measurement Inc. And if you’re looking for a career in health care, officials at HCA Florida Healthcare system or White-Wilson Medical Center are looking for more top employees.
7. Savor the Flavors of the Emerald Coast
Some of the best seafood in the world is served at top restaurants here. Popular items include baked grouper, calamari, conch chowder, mahi-mahi, stone crabs and oysters, and area restaurants highly rated by TripAdvisor.com include AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, Angler’s Beachside Grill, Floyd’s Shrimp House and The Shack.
8. Receive an Excellent Education
Students have good choices of where to attend school throughout the region. For students K-12, Okaloosa County School District has 55 schools and has garnered several accolades, including the Florida Department of Education giving the school district an A+ rating. For higher education options, students have excellent local choices such as Northwest Florida State College in Niceville; and University of West Florida, Troy University and Okaloosa Technical College in Fort Walton Beach.
9. Immerse Yourself in the Arts & Culture Scene
The arts contribute to the culture and charm of a community, and they also attract companies that want their employees to experience creative quality-of-life assets. The arts scene can be applauded in Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa County, with several performing arts venues, galleries and arts festivals.
Examples include the Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College, which features two galleries, a theater-in-the-round, 3,500-seat amphitheater and 1,650-seat main-stage theater.
Other great options in the region include the Stage Crafters, Northwest Florida Ballet, Concerts in the Village (Destin), Festival of the Arts, Billy Bowlegs Festival, Concerts in the Park (Fort Walton Beach), and the Destin Seafood Festival.
Staff writer Kevin Litwin contributed to this article.
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