Jerry Taylor just showed up one day 11 years ago. Back then, the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort consisted of a golf course and adjoining hot dog stand. Tired of running a landscaping business, Taylor went to work grilling Oscar Mayers.
The resort is now a stunning 2,400-acre community of about 1,700 condominiums, villas, townhomes and hotel accommodations spread along more than 7 miles of beaches and bayfront. The one golf course has grown to four, in addition to the 15 tennis courts, 19 swimming pools, 100-slip marina and pedestrian shopping village. They even have their own Publix.
And Taylor, 54, is still here, one of more than 1,200 employees at the resort. He's also one of the most sought-after servers at one of the resort's best restaurants. He's the singing server. Dinner and a show.
"I had no idea I'd be here this long," he said. "I've worked in a shipyard, cooked chicken, been a truck driver and an aircraft mechanic. This is like a dream place."
For him, and for Walton County. According to the Labor Department, Walton had a 3.7 percent unemployment rate in July, the lowest in Florida. The average unemployment rate for the state is 6.1 percent, nearly double what it was two years ago and the highest in 13 years.
All this as Walton has seen an increase in its population of more than 12,000 people in the past seven years, making it the ninth-fastest-growing county in Florida.
But here are the really staggering numbers: Almost 90 percent of the county's property tax revenue comes from the area south of Choctawhatchee Bay. Walton County's beaches attract 2.3-million visitors a year, and they spend about $685-million in the county. The beaches generate about $257-million a year in local income, and about $23-million a year for the area's school district.
Another key beach number: More than 10,000 people work at the South Walton resorts, the largest of which is Sandestin.
"We have Russians, Romanians, Jamaicans, Costa Ricans, Germans, college students, people who grew up here … it's such a mix of people," said Michael Holmes, 44, a bartender and server at Sandestin.
Case in point is Shawna Meisner. She's 30 and manages the resort's marina. She found Sandestin through a job fair in Atlanta. And 60-year-old Dick Flanery. After 31 years at General Motors, he finally found his dream job. He's the dock master.
Like many beach resorts, most workers don't live in Sandestin. Rents at the resort approach $1,500 a month, and because about two-thirds of the workers here are part time, it's impossible for most. But comparable housing can be found in Freeport, Niceville and other nearby towns for about half as much.
Keeping a close eye on the beaches is the Walton County Commission, a group that wants measured, well-planned development.
"We were going to look like everyone else unless we implemented polices to keep us unique," said County Commission chairman Larry Jones. "Folks would argue that because of the regulations and controls, we're strangling development," he said. "That's just not the case. The return is far greater than what you would have gotten if you relaxed controls and let everything in."
Jones also said the county has positioned itself as an alternative destination. "We're a drive destination, and when dollars get tight, folks start looking closer to home for a place to vacation," he said. "Nobody is completely insulated from the economy, but if you're in Atlanta and you can't go to London, come here."
That's what Jerry Taylor did in 1997. Every day, Taylor makes the 80-minute commute from his Crestview home. Gas prices have made the trip more painful, but he's not leaving any time soon.
"If it was about the money," he said, "I wouldn't be here. Show you what I mean."
A smile crept across his face and he channeled Sam Cooke.
"Don't know much about history. Don't know much biology …"
Hendry vs. Walton
39,651 Population 57,093
29.5 Median age 40.5
34 Persons PER SQ. MILE 54
12,294 (11.7) Housing units (%vacant) 29,083 (43.1)
$28,607 Average annual wage $30,859
10,850 Total households 16,548
53.6 % with kids under 18 39.3
U.S. Sugar Corp. Biggest employers Sandestin Resort, schools
Sources: Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research; U.S. Census Bureau