SOUTH WALTON — The once rural area of South Walton is no more.

Construction crews and development signs fill the landscape along the approximate 32-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 98 toward the Bay County line.

The metal frame of the Hilton Garden Inn build-out behind the Winn-Dixie in Miramar Beach is the first clue the area is changing, and fast.

Bill Imfeld, Economic Development Alliance executive director for Walton County, said the development of the southern region is limited due to 40-to-65 percent of the land being public and not available for commercial use.

The scarce amount of privately owned land, however, has not deterred developers.

“The people are coming here,” Imfeld said. “They want to make their homes here. They want to have their businesses here.”

It is a slow trek these days down the four-lane highway of U.S. 98 between Emerald Bay Drive and Tang-O-Mar Drive as vehicles dodge traffic cones and road work signs.

The Florida Department of Transportation is in the midst of a $42 million project on the stretch of highway, which includes widening the roadway from four-to-six travel lanes. New bicycle lanes will also be installed, in addition to drainage system improvements.

The widening of the highway, according to Walton County Public Information Office Louis Svehla, could not be more timely.

“Any time we can have the high traffic areas widened, regardless of when they occur, is going to be beneficial,” Svehla said. “It’s not only beneficial for our tourists, but for our citizens who live here as well.

“The Department of Transportation plans these things years in advance. I’d say this is a pretty good time.”

In the heart of South Walton, signs announcing major developments are popping up in droves.

The St. Joe Company, a Northwest Florida-based real estate developer and asset manager, is hoping to create a senior living facility and mixed use development on 7.74 acres on the west side of West Hewett Road, north of U.S. 98 and south of Monks Lane. 

The same company is also in its second phase of a 50-year, approximately 110,500-acre project called the Bay-Walton Sector Plan. The project will offer residential housing and commercial space.

This project will include Margaritaville Watersound, a 55 and over age-restricted residential community located adjacent to IntraCoastal Waterway near Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Bay County. The project will include an estimated 3,000 homes once completed.

Bridget Precise, vice president of residential development for St. Joe, said the first part of the project is partnering with the Sacred Heart Health Facility to build a 6,700-square-foot, multi-specialty ambulatory clinic offering primary and OBGYN services. The clinic, part of a project called Watersound Origins off of U.S. Highway 98 near the Bay County line.

The clinic has the potential to expand to 13,000 square feet to offer other specialty care services. 

"Right now our biggest project is Watersound Origins, which is part of the Sector Plan," Precise said. "Watersound Origins is a mixed use project. We got entitlements to develop 1,074 single-family units, 256 multi-family units and over 400,000-square-feet of commercial retail and office space."

Precise said when the build-outs of each plan will begin, however, is strictly in response to market demand.

Though the current development is more noticeable along U.S. Highway 98, Imfeld and Svehla said it doesn’t compare to the growth the area underwent these past 20 years. 

Imfeld said with only a fraction of the land still available for development, South Walton will eventually run out of available space for new projects.

The future, Svehla said, is in redevelopment. 

“Florida has made a turn towards conservation, not away from it,” said Svehla. “We anticipate seeing, as opposed to a bunch of new development, is redevelopment. We’ll see new stuff in the place of older properties with buildings that aren’t being used anymore.”

Not all residents and business owners, however, are thrilled to see the sleepy beach community change.

"There is nothing we can do about it," said 26-year-old Marissa O'Drain, who helps run her dad's barber shop in South Walton. "I remember back when this was just a two lane street. This development kind of saddens me. I like that this was a small town. I liked the fact that everyone knew everyone.

“It'll be nice to have all the stores that will come. It will be convenient. It will just be a positive and negative.”

Still, buildings are going up.

Dune Lakes Elementary, which is currently under construction on 33.5 acres off U.S. Highway 98, 6.5 miles east of U. S. Highway 331, will be the first elementary school built in South Walton County in more than 20 years.

The $35 million project will consist of 150,000 square feet with 59 classrooms that can accommodate 1,012 students. The school will hold traditional elementary grades K-5.

Also to the west of Veterans Road will be the new warehouse and office space for YOLO Board.

Mitzy Archer, owner of the YOLO Board, said she plans to close her Miramar Beach location to relocate to the larger, more consolidated facility. Archer plans to break ground on the project in the coming year.

In addition to the Hilton Garden Inn in Miramar Beach, development orders were submitted to the county for the 71-room Miramar Beach Hotel. The hotel, if plans continue, will be located on U.S. 98, west of Forest Shore Drive and to the east of North Holiday Road. 

As large as the projects may be on their own, they are only a small part of the projects in the works for Walton County. Imfeld said with South Walton fully recovered from the recession 10 years ago, citizens should see even more growth take root.

"The St. Joe Paper Company is the big bear here," Imfeld said in response to the current projects. "That's great because we need to have the supporting industries and facilities in the area. YOLO started in a garage, and look where they're going now.

"They know when to build and when not to build, and they're doing a great job."