"It really is picking up," said Jason McLarty, a Santa Rosa County planner. "From residential to commercial, it's growing everywhere all around the county."

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NAVARRE — Maybe you noticed that things look a little different in recent years.

There's a new hotel (finally) opening for the 2017 tourist season on Navarre Beach, and along U.S. Highway 98 there are developments that include new apartment buildings, a grocery store and even its own Dewey Destin's restaurant.

"It really is picking up," said Jason McLarty, a Santa Rosa County planner. "From residential to commercial, it's growing everywhere all around the county. I would say it's a direct correlation of the economy picking up."

'Positive momentum'

County Commissioner Rob Williamson, whose district includes Navarre, says more projects are an obvious good sign for the area.

"It beats the alternative," he said. "What it tells me is that we have great people and a great place to live. ... There's a lot of positive momentum. It's the first time in awhile we're feeling the community is heading in the right direction."

Touted as one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida, Santa Rosa's population has grown 41 percent between 2000 and 2015, from 117,743 to 167,040, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And it's not just residents; tourism is up in the south end. In fiscal 2015-16, the county collected almost $2.4 million in bed taxes. That's expected to increase this year as the 161-room SpringHill Suites hotel, which also will provide Navarre Beach with a new restaurant, opens. The county also recently approved a new marketing campaign for Navarre Beach touting it as "the most relaxing beach."

"We've been strategically targeting different markets, namely Atlanta and suburbs of Atlanta," said Julie Morgan, the county's tourist development director.

Morgan said development is a positive influence on tourism.

"When the economy as a whole is good, it's good for tourists," she said.

What's new

In 2016, Santa Rosa County had nine approved land development projects for Navarre. In 2015, there were 10. It's been a steady growth, McLarty said.

Among the new developments were Pik-itz! Arts & Antiques, Navarre Gardens Assisted Living Facility, Dewey Destin's Navarre, a grocery store and a new apartment complex across from The Sound at Navarre Beach. Just west of St. Sylvester Catholic Church, construction of another luxury apartment complex — Greystone Summit — is underway.

Mark Miller, a Realtor in Navarre for almost 20 years, said there has been more than 300 new homes sold in the past year. In 2015, it was in the low-200s.

"That's more than we've seen in quite awhile," Miller said. "We had the market downturn almost 10 years ago. It was around 2011 to 2012 we started to see a turn. 2016 was the best year yet, and 2017 is shaping up to be just as strong."

Miller equates the interest in Navarre to the schools — Santa Rosa County has had an "A" rating for 12 consecutive years — beach access and lot sizes.

"This is a great place to live and raise a family," he said. "You get a bigger piece of land ... bigger backyard. The schools are good and you're close to the beach."

With most rental homes averaging about $1,200 to $1,500 a month, Miller said there's a need for more apartments and town homes. There's also more room to grow the housing market.

"There's still land available," he said.

Commercial projects generally are kept under tight wraps. The new grocery store construction site at 7362 Navarre Parkway is rumored to be a Walmart Neighborhood Market, but the project is simply called "Navarre Grocery."

"We rarely get information, because anything we do is public record," McLarty said.

Corporations look at a lot of different aspects, he said. That includes population, which means the new housing developments could be a good sign for residents yearning for big box stores.

"The overall big picture is that the land use, commercial and residential, and all points in-between are as harmonious as possible," he said.

Growing pains

As Navarre grows, especially in the residential market, so does the traffic.

When Williamson took office in 2014, he sent a survey to District 4 residents to ask them to list their concerns. Traffic congestion and safety were at the top of the list.

Over the next 12 months the county will close some median openings on U.S. 98. There's also an upcoming Florida Department of Transportation feasibility study for a community access road from State Road 87 to the Okaloosa County line.

Williamson said he wants to see developments that fit the needs for "now and in the future."

"It's not about what I want or what one special interest wants," he said. "It's what we want to be when we grow up."

As Navarre's population grows — it's now more than 42,000 — traffic will "get worse before it gets better," Williamson said. But that's not a reason to stop moving forward.

"Our future is bright," he said. "Now, our biggest problem is that we have two chambers (of commerce). Growth is progress."

 

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