Walton County continues to lure more than visitors, as recently released census figures show it to be the sixth fastest growing county in the entire United States.
The county’s population leapt from 65,440 to 68,376 between 2016 and 2017, according to figures released March 22 by the U.S. Census Bureau. That 4.5 percent jump of 2,936 new citizens puts Walton behind only a Virginia county, a county in Utah and three counties in Texas.
Last year’s growth spurt wasn’t an anomaly. Walton County ranked as the nation’s 21st fastest growing county in 2015-16 by adding 2,430 residents for a 3.8 percent population expansion.
Northwest Florida Daily News records show Walton was also the state’s third fastest growing county between 2013 and 2014. That year its population grew by 2,127 people to exceed 60,000 for the first time by reaching 61,530.
Not only is the high rate of growth not new, it’s likely to continue, according to Bill Imfeld, the executive director of the Walton County Economic Development Alliance.
“We met with an economist who told us over the next decade the two fastest growing counties on the Gulf Coast were going to be Baldwin County, Alabama and Walton County, Florida,” Imfeld said.
One reason Walton County can expect more growth is an expected expansion of the military’s hypersonic weapon systems testing program, Imfeld said. County officials in both Walton and neighboring Okaloosa County have been warned to anticipate an influx of both military officials and contractors as the Gulf of Mexico area set aside for weapons testing – by far the nation’s largest -- is greater utilized for this growing mission.
“We’ve been made aware to get ready,” Imfeld said.
As it stands now, the Walton County is seeing booming growth in its southeastern quadrant, its midsection and near DeFuniak Springs. Mossy Head in northwest Walton County continues its steady growth and there have even been signs of budding new life in quiet rural Paxton.
Seven new South Walton developments, including four residential and one mixed-use development, were recently approved for construction by the Walton County Commission.
Growth is also happening in and around the Hammock Bay subdivision in Freeport, Imfeld said.
A highly anticipated Veteran’s Lodging project will provide homes for 80 veterans in DeFuniak Springs, Imfeld said. Other north county projects include one development of 350 to 400 single family homes, he said.
As the Mossy Head Industrial Park continues to grow, having now developed 350 acres of the 425 acre complex, residential opportunities are expanding and new ones are being considered, Imfeld said.
Paxton recently added its first new business in a decade, Imfeld said, when a Dollar General opened.
“In Paxton, that constitutes economic development,” he said.
Still to come is expected commercial growth along the U.S. Highway 331 corridor, which forms the north-south spine of Walton County. On Friday, another section of highway running north out of Freeport was opened as part of an extensive four-laning project between DeFuniak Springs and U.S. Highway 98 in South Walton.
“We do need to be forward thinking, we know the growth is coming from both individuals and business. We’ve got to be looking forward … so both the housing and business needs can be met and we can stay in front of the curve instead of waiting for everybody to get here and then saying ‘what do we do next?” Imfeld said. “It’s been a very positive attitude for both Okaloosa and Walton to say ‘we know they’re coming, let’s do what they can to make it a safe and sound environment for everyone to live in happily.’ ”