Hunter Walker is wrapping up work as Santa Rosa County Administrator. In a final conversation with WUWF before leaving the post, he looked back at his 20 years on the job.
“Twenty years is a long time; that’s a generation,” said Walker. “The county’s changed a lot. I turned 65 in October so it seemed time.”
Walker has seen a lot of changes in Santa Rosa County during the past two decades, noting that the population was approaching 100,000 in the mid 1990’s, when he arrived. Now, approximately 163,000 people live in Santa Rosa.
“The change has just been remarkable, with the people and the neighborhoods,” Walker said. “We’re basically still rural in the northern end of the county, but we’re suburban, whether it’s focused toward Pensacola or focused toward Fort Walton Beach.”
Before being offered Santa Rosa’s the administrator job in 1995, Walker says he had been working as city manager in Tifton, GA for about 8 years. But, he had roots in the area and the timing was right.
“I grew up in Atmore and my mother was still alive in Atmore,” said Walker, noting that he wanted to be closer to her as she was getting older and that working in a larger community would be a good career move. “I just thought it was a very good professional opportunity and it’s been that in spades.”
In terms of major developments in Santa Rosa County over the past couple of years, one of the most significant was the BP Oil Spill in 2010.
“We really were in an active state of emergency for about four months,” Walker said. “The Coast Guard was trying to take care of the shoreline, and there was a lot of fear from our residents, property owners, business owners. You know, what’s the future going to be?”
According to Walker, once the well was capped and things settled down over the next 6 to 8 months, the focus of the environmental crisis event turned to the restoration process.
“And we’re still there as you know with the RESTORE Act. And, I think there’s a real opportunity when you put together some of the funds the state will have and some others. It should be a game changer both for the environment and the economy.”
In addition to the BP restoration projects, Walker says infrastructure projects will focus on drainage improvements.
Efforts to fund and build a new judicial center in Santa Rosa also have taken center stage over the years. The current facility, known as the old county courthouse, was constructed back in 1927 and is no longer sufficient to meet today’s court functions.
In 2014, voters rejected the most recent effort to adopt a one cent sales tax and choose a location for a new structure.
Walker says, unfortunately, none of the BP money can go toward the courthouse project, but it’s the responsibility of local government, which will have to figure it out.
The effort to replace Walker as county administrator involved a national search that was conducted with the assistance of the Florida Association of County Managers. The job opening drew a large number of applicants, and the selection process took months. In November, the Santa Rosa County Commission announced the hiring of long-time county employee Tony Gomillion.
“Quite frankly, I think with Tony, the board felt like it got a two-for,” said Walker. “They got somebody familiar with the county, familiar with the people, culture, the problems, concerns, somebody that could be a change agent, that has been there 30 years.”
Walker’s last official day on the job is Thursday, December 31, 2015. After that, he’s not sure what the future holds.
“I want to stay active,” said Walker, referring to his church, family and community involvement to include service on various boards.
“As a former pilot, they told me Hunter we’re closer to the end of the runway than we used to be,’ Walker says, adding that in the coming years his goal is to see where he can make a contribution in what he called the ‘last portion of his run down the runway.’