The ball fields are full.
Take a drive by Twin Oaks park at the corner of College and 85 on a Saturday. Or a Monday night – or a Tuesday night. Really any night.
The parks are filled to the brim with kids playing organized sports.
Rarick Field – where little league plays – has no room left either. The baseball and softball fields to the north of the senior center don’t have any room left. When, as a youth lacrosse coach, I led practice in a corner of a baseball field in 2020 – we were out of room.
That was before hundreds of thousands of new residents moved to Florida in the last two years. Many of those people moved to Niceville and Valparaiso. In fact, Okaloosa County’s population increased by 2,000 people in just two years according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.
The University of Florida estimates the City of Niceville alone grew by about 300 residents between 2020 and 2021. The 1.7% growth in population in one year outpaced Okaloosa County (.7%) and was slightly ahead of the state as a whole (1.6%).
Ultimately, it means more people, higher home prices and more demand for youth sports.
Niceville and Valparaiso are essentially an island in a sea of Air Force land. The Twin Cities are surrounded on three sides by Eglin Air Force Base Range and by water to the south.
Sometimes it seems like it may be easier to build on the water, than on Eglin land.
But, the Niceville City Council wants to try and get a long-term lease of several parcels of land that would be useful for parks and ballfields.
To that end, City Manager Lannie Corbin and Mayor Daniel Henkel met with Colonel Ken Black, the 96th Mission Support Group Commander, about the possibility of grabbing a couple of parcels of ‘orphaned’ land that lie between College Boulevard and Spence Parkway. Colloquially, orphaned land is considered land that the Air Force owns, but cannot use to support missions or testing because of its proximity to populated areas or its juxtaposition near roads.
The conversation was encouraging but not actionable. “I thought the meeting went very well with Colonel Black and his team,” said Mayor Henkel, “They seemed to indicate that they were all in favor [of a lease to the city of the land]. But they reminded us again that they are not the final decision-makers, that it would have to go through a process for final approval.”
Councilman Sal Nodjimian noted that the mayor and the city manager were supposed to ask about all parcels of land that are ‘orphaned’ by Spence Parkway, but had not – which means there is more to discuss with the Air Force in terms of land leases. “I just want to be clear,” the Councilman Nodjimian said, “so that the minutes are appropriately capturing my concern. I am asking that we continue to dialogue with Eglin and appropriate agencies to include the Air Force on all parcels that are adjacent to our city to include the current Mullet Festival grounds, the parcel that is west of 85 near [Roberts Lake (on College)] and the parcel that you did speak on. Let’s discuss the art of the possible so we can find some potential expansion space for the type of recreational activities that our growing city needs.”