THE ISSUE: Santa Rosa County's population boom could reach a record 180,000 residents by 2020, according to the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
LOCAL IMPACT: Increased police presence and investment in public amenities will be necessary to maintain the larger population — and keep new residents in the county
PACE — Santa Rosa County’s population rose from 117,743 to 167,040 from 2000 to 2015, according to the United States Census Bureau. The area ranks seventh in the state by percentage.
This population spike bodes well for several areas, though proper planning is necessary to accommodate needs, according to authorities.
But what’s drawing people here? And what's next, especially considering a record population boom is just around the corner?
Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Rich Aloy said it’s the low crime rate. He said crime rose 4.8 percent last year primarily due to vehicle burglaries. However, he said, it would likely drop when drivers lock their doors.
Economic Development Director Shannon Ogletree said people come for work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Santa Rosa County has a 4.4 unemployment rate — down from a 2010 peak of 10 percent.
Ogletree said many people come to live in Santa Rosa County and work for Escambia-based Navy Federal Credit Union.
Locally, he said the biggest employers are the school district, Wal-Mart, App River, Goldring Gulf Distributing, HT Hackney and Gulf Cable.
Four companies — Pate Stevedore, Gulf Cable, Power Secure and Cape Horn — recently added between five and 20 employees.
Superintendant Tim Wyrosdick said families come for the schools. The website www.schooldigger.com bases its district rankings on test scores released by the Florida Department of Education. It lists Santa Rosa School District as ninth in the state.
The website k12.niche.com ranks the district as 13th in the state based on academics, diversity, health and safety, parent and student surveys, teachers’ grades, resources and facilities, clubs and activities and sports.
Zachary Jenkins, director of the Haas Center, a research and consulting arm of the University of West Florida, said the county's 10 percent growth is "pretty remarkable," since the United States had 4 percent growth and Santa Rosa outpaced Florida's 7.8 percent growth, which he described as "one of the fastest growing states."
The county’s population reached a milestone in 2015, surpassing 150,000. An already burdened county budget temporarily lost the Small County Outreach Program grant from the state, which paid for certain road projects.
The county qualified again when the Florida Department of Transportation changed the population requirement to 170,000. However, population projections suggest Santa Rosa could have 178,000 residents within three years.
"SCOP funds 75 percent of our projects and that's been about $1 million a year, $1.2 million,” Budget Director Jayne Bell has said. “But even with SCOP, we're falling way short." The county soon implemented a gas tax.
During budget talks last year, officials faced another challenge: more people needing more services while revenue hadn’t risen accordingly.
“I think … it's important to note that there comes a point in time where you have to redefine what is your level of service, what is adequate,” Administrator Tony Gomillion said. “And assuming we stay at a static state essentially with a budget, you have to accept your levels of service may decline.”
Bell said Santa Rosa's budget growth wasn’t matching the population because property values hadn’t grown proportionately. She said the gas tax and increase in permitting fees were only “playing catch-up.”
So last year, Santa Rosa County voters did something they rarely do: They voted for a sales tax. The half-cent local option sales tax will generate about $7 million, according to Bell.
“(LOST dollars) help capital projects and infrastructure that would normally come out of general fund and road and bridge fund and capital equipment,” Bell said.
CRIME AND STAFFING
Despite the population increase, the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office reports only a minor bump in the crime rate. Aloy cited the county’s low crime rate as a reason people are moving here.
He said the rate went up 4.8 percent last year. Most of those crimes were vehicle burglaries, he said, primarily due to unlocked doors. While he didn’t want to blame the victims, Aloy said he’s seen security footage of suspects passing up locked cars to search for unlocked ones.
One result of this crime is more stolen guns getting into criminal hands, according to Aloy. He said that, in any group of vehicle burglaries, one to five guns go missing.
Another problem the SRSO faces related to county growth is deputy retention.
“We are at 1.2 deputies per 1,000 citizens,” Aloy said. “The average in the United States is 2.7 officers (deputies) per 1,000 citizens. Therefore, we have about half the staffing levels of the national average.”
Three months ago, then Sheriff-elect Bob Johnson said 36 of 119 deputies had less than two years’ experience.
Moreover, while people come to live in Santa Rosa County due to the low crime rate, the SRSO has found criminals come to the county due to a smaller force.
EFFECTS ON EDUCATION
Wyrosdick said from the 2015-2016 to 2016-2017 academic years, the district grew 900 students.
“900 — that’s a school year,” he said.
This is why the district has been communicating with the state department of education on support for building new schools.
“I think we need a new high school and two new (kindergarten through eighth grade) schools,” he said.
In September, reports showed growth primarily in Navarre, Pace and Gulf Breeze.
“Newlyweds come to Pensacola but as you have those families and kids you want to be in a darn good school district,” Ogletree said. “I think we’ll start capitalizing on that more and more.”
IMPACT ON NONPROFITS
Last April, Favor House was one agency to get an increase in funding from United Way of Santa Rosa County. Executive Director Sue Hand said her organization needs the additional funds to assist a growing county.
"Santa Rosa County is growing, and all of us in the nonprofit field are reaching," she said. "We're providing more direct services than ever before … There is increasing need. Domestic violence has gone up the last two years … The growing community is continuing to have intimate partner violence issues."
Santa Rosa Schools’ Director of Federal Programs Dr. Karen Barber is also the president of the nonprofit Bridge out of Poverty. She said the half-cent sales tax for the school district is vital, but nonprofits also need help.
“That doesn’t happen necessarily in nonprofits,” she said. “We have to serve more people (but) funding hasn’t grown with population and new citizens.”
“There’s always increasing pressure,” United Way of Santa Rosa County Major Gifts Manager Kyle Holley said. “Everybody needs to build greater capacity. That’s clear … All programs are full and at capacity and need to build resources.”
As new companies are on their way to the county, Holley said workforce programs must increase to prepare people who need them to get into those new jobs.
Holley said new residents to the county include those in poverty seeking Santa Rosa County’s climate of clean water and good schools.
However, he said, he sometimes suggests they move to Escambia County where federal assistance programs are more abundant.
“Because there is more money in Escambia, I recommend they move there if they’re in poverty,” he said.
The approved Pace Crossroads project, consisting of three businesses, Ogletree said, is an indirect result of the population boom.
Other retail development includes the Publix at Five Points in Pace and the Tiger Point Pavilion in Gulf Breeze.
He said the population increase attracted the retail project, which is a desirable element to industry and lures more people to the county.
However, he said the county lost a call center considering East Milton because the population there wasn’t large enough since growth has primarily been in Pace and Navarre.
"Population growth is a strong signal the economy is doing pretty well, especially when growth is from people choosing to move to Santa Rosa County from outside the county,” Jenkins said. “They're voting with their feet."
CONSIDERING THE FUTURE
What do the next few decades look like? The answer depends on how the county reacts and plans for growth.
The Bureau of Economic and Business Research with the University of Florida produces the state’s official population estimates and projections.
According to the BEBR’s projections, the county will near 180,000 residents by 2020, near 200,000 by 2025 and gain 10,000 every five years to 2045.
By FDOT standards, Santa Rosa will no longer be a small county eligible for SCOP funds. Voters have already said yes to future projects by passing the LOST.
Authorities say the county needs more deputies to meet the needs of a growing county. If the population continues to increase but the deputy numbers stay the same, will outside criminal elements see even more opportunity in the county? Aloy said yes.
Ogletree said, overall, “As the population increases, the new residents will bring certain skill sets and allow (the county) to market those to companies.”
However, Ogletree said, “Once you get them, here you have to have amenities to keep them here. Being close to work and having a job is one thing, but we know it’s more than having a job. It’s having the parks, nice houses, (and) being able to shop somewhere.”
Jenkins said it's also a matter of understanding infrastructure and not letting population growth "sneak up on you."
"Don’t allow roads to get faster than they ought to be. Big growth occurs where it’ll fit. (Don't just open) the floodgates to whatever a developer is going to make. It's a matter of understanding who you want to attract to your community and plan accordingly.
“Places that grow so fast you don’t have a chance to catch your breath and see — that’s where you see places lose character and ultimately growth changes."