Expanding companies prosper against a backdrop of stunning scenery in Florida's Northwest.
|? BUSINESS FLORIDA HOME PAGE|
With its stunningly beautiful beaches, graceful rivers and easy-going lifestyle, Florida's Northwest region, has long been considered a vacation paradise. But this 16-county region is also renowned for corporate growth, educational excellence, cutting-edge research, military might and workforce strength.
An exciting example of dynamic business growth is DayJet Corp., which plans to launch its revolutionary "air taxi" system from airports in Tallahassee and Pensacola. Immediate plans also call for "dayports" in Boca Raton, Gainesville and Lakeland with later expansion to other markets throughout Florida.
The on-demand, point to- point, micro-jet travel service chose Florida as the base for its Eclipse 500 jet fleet, training operations and headquarters partly because of the state's vast aviation and aerospace sector, says CEO Ed Iacobucci. Tallahassee and Pensacola each have "a strong business climate, a well-educated and technology-savvy workforce, and an unsurpassed quality of life," he says.
DayJet's "daybases" in Northwest Florida will add approximately 70 high-value jobs for pilots, aircraft mechanics and other professionals. In fact, DayJet will have a $40 million combined economic impact on the two cities within three years, officials say, and also improve the region's already fluid transportation system. Moreover, DayJet will make Tallahassee Regional the home for its Very Light Jet Center of Excellence.
|Facts & Figures|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Demographics USA 2005, TradeDimensions International Inc.; Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. EBI = effective buying/disposable income.
The center's public-private partnership will train 2,000 pilots annually by 2008, plus offer training in avionics, customer support and other specialties. Workforce Florida and Workforce Plus, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Lively Technical Center, Tallahassee Community College, Florida A&M University and Florida State University teamed up to bring DayJet to the region--"Proof positive," says John Adams, president and CEO of the state economic development organization Enterprise Florida, "of the continued strength of our state's economy."
With a population of 1.3 million, Florida's 13,000-square-mile Northwest region encompasses four metropolitan statistical areas. To the east, the state capital Tallahassee MSA includes Leon, Gadsden, Wakulla and Jefferson counties. On the west, the Pensacola MSA includes Escambia--the Northwest's most populous county-- and Santa Rosa counties on the Gulf of Mexico. Also on the Gulf Coast are the Fort Walton Beach-Destin (Okaloosa County) and Panama City (Bay County) MSAs. Apart from Tallahassee/ Leon County, much of the inland region is rural.
Along Interstate 10, which crosses the region from east to west, distribution- warehouse and industrial park complexes abound. Although the 500- acre Santa Rosa (County) Industrial Park, developed two decades ago, is now nearly full, county officials are committed to further growth. Santa Rosa is spending $2 million dollars to buy 160 acres for park expansion and another $2 million to improve access and internal roads.
Also in Santa Rosa County just minutes from I-10 is the new Whiting Aviation Park, representing a partnership between the county and the U.S. Navy. The businesses here have access to Navy Air Station Whiting Field's 6,000- foot runway, making this an ideal site for aviation enterprise. Santa Rosa received state fiscal assistance to buy and improve the site, and relocating firms enjoy access to numerous incentives, including discounted land pricing.
Shipping ease runs region-wide. In addition to I-10, U.S. Highways 20, 90 and 98, many state highways and hundreds of miles of rail lines traverse the region. Goods flow easily in and out of three deepwater seaports--Port of Pensacola, Port Panama City and Port St. Joe--and dozens of general aviation and small airports, such as Bob Sikes Airport, serve the Northwest region.
Owned by Okaloosa County, Sikes Airport offers general and corporate aviation, air taxi service and some military operations. Dr. Paul Hsu, chairman of Total Parts Plus Inc., plans to build a high-tech aviation facility on 18.5 acres at Okaloosa Industrial Park near the airport. The Advanced Technology Air Park, a $16 million project, will specialize in unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturing.
Commercial airline service is available at four locations--Tallahassee, Okaloosa and Pensacola Regional airports, and Panama City-Bay County International Airport--and upgrades are always under way. Improvements at Okaloosa Regional, situated between Fort Walton Beach and Niceville, include a new taxiway, expanded aircraft and public parking and terminal renovation.
At Pensacola Regional, work begins in 2007 on a $50 million project which includes new terminal gates and passenger jet-ways and additional ticket counter space and parking. The airport, which is owned by the city and located just three miles northeast of downtown, is served by eight airlines offering 50 flights daily.
A giant project
In Bay County, construction on the only major new airport likely to be built in the U.S. for decades is slated to begin in 2007 with flight operations starting in 2009. "It can't be overstated how huge the airport project is in terms of economic development opportunities," says Ted Clem, who directs Bay County economic development. The project will mean some 14,000 new jobs and an estimated $449 million in new operating revenue for Bay County, he says.
The focal point of West Bay, as the 75,000-acre mixed-use project is called, will of course be the new $312 million airport. Elsewhere on the site, $4.4 million will be spent on the development of commercial, office and industrial space, marinas and other recreational facilities, plus nearly 5,500 homes. More than 30,000 acres will be set aside for environmental preservation.
The 4,000 acres of land needed for airport construction came as the result of a transfer to the Panama City-Bay County International Airport Authority by The St. Joe Company, Florida's largest landowner. Formerly a timber company, St. Joe owns 750,000-plus acres of land in Northwest Florida and is today a major real estate developer.
St. Joe's WindMark Beach, between Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach, is a residential community of some 1,700 units. At Port St. Joe, the company is developing 180 acres with plans for up to 624 residential units, mostly multifamily units on or near the Gulf, plus commercial space designed as a civic gathering place and entertainment district. Also planned are public waterfront facilities on St. Joseph Bay, office space, a 150-room hotel, 500 wet and dry boat slips and a new town hall.
Incentives for success
Companies that move to or expand within the Northwest region may choose from several incentives, including property tax abatements, grants for transportation improvements and workforce training and tax refunds in exchange for job creation.
In Escambia County, IMS Expert Services recently relocated to Pensacola. IMS, which provides expert witness and litigation consultant search services, looked at Denver and Atlanta, among other sites, before choosing Pensacola. "We are grateful to the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the city of Pensacola," says IMS CEO Mike Wein. "Their assistance in obtaining job creation incentives and other support were critical elements in our decision making process."
IMS received a Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund incentive. QTI is a performance-based, $3,000-per-job state tax refund paid over several years to a company that creates jobs and pays above-average wages. IMS projects average pay of more than $64,000 per year (double the local average) and plans to hire 16 new employees.
Elsewhere in Escambia, Navy Federal Credit Union, the nation's largest federally chartered credit union, is building two new office buildings to complement its customer service center, which came to the area in 2003. The new 150,000- square-foot buildings at Heritage Oaks Center in northwest Pensacola will house customer service, mortgage processing, credit card processing and other support services. NFCU's employment will grow from 480 to more than 1,700 by the end of 2008.
Ohio-based Wayne-Dalton Corp., a garage door maker, chose Pensacola for its $37 million, 146-job expansion. The company, which came to Pensacola in 1985 and employs about 350, will add 200,000 square feet of space for manufacturing and R&D activities.
The Northwest region's experienced military-industrial workforce is a powerful asset for expanding aviation or other technology firms.
"We have found the Florida Panhandle to be a good manufacturing environment with both a solid workforce and a generally positive business climate," says Willis Mullet, chairman.
Also, Festival Airlines, a newly formed vacation airline based in Chicago, has named Pensacola Regional Airport its national employee training and aircraft maintenance center. A total of 121 new jobs will be added over three years' time with an annual payroll exceeding $9 million.
Thanks to a Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) grant awarded early in 2006, the region-wide workforce has new muscle. This three-year, $15 million performance-based federal grant will fund job training for new and expanding businesses in the high-skill, high-wage sectors of aerospace, defense, life sciences, information technology, electronic engineering and construction services.
WIRED grants require a 100% match at the local level, which means that the $15 million grant has blossomed into a $30 million initiative that will lower private-sector training costs. Florida's Great Northwest Inc., the Destin-based region- wide economic development partnership, administers the grant.
"It has energized existing collaborative efforts between the private sector, the workforce boards and the education institutions on both secondary and post-secondary levels," says Al Wenstrand, executive director of Florida's Great Northwest. "This grant will have tremendous impact for years to come."
The Northwest's labor force includes a large percentage of ex-military personnel, many of whom fell in love with the region during their tours of duty at Eglin Air Force Base or other nearby installations, then stayed put after retirement to create a skilled and motivated employee corps.
Eglin occupies nearly a half-million acres, including more than half of Okaloosa and neighboring Walton counties. As the 2005 base realignments take effect and an additional 20,000 military personnel, civilian contractors and family members relocate to the area, Eglin's economic impact on this region is expected to grow. Eglin is slated to become the main training site for 100-plus new F-35 fighter aircraft to be used by the Air Force, Navy, Marines and U.S. allies and the new home of the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group Green Berets, among other operations.
2005 base realignments grew Florida's defense industry by 28,000 direct and indirect jobs.
According to business researchers at the University of West Florida, planned military relocations will have a huge impact in Okaloosa County alone: $473.1 million in onetime construction spending through 2010, plus $473.6 million in annual recurring spending due to personnel relocations. And that is in addition to about 21,000 existing Okaloosa military and defense-related jobs; neighboring Walton and Santa Rosa counties will also benefit from planned military relocations.
More than 300 private sector defense contractors are located in Okaloosa, the Northwest's third largest county. One such contractor is Cresview Aerospace, a manufacturer providing major airframe structures and military aircraft modifications.
Crestview opened in 1991 with 13 employees; today it is the county's largest private employer with 1,200 people working at its facilities at Bob Sikes Airport. In 2006, Crestview won a Bell Helicopter Textron contract to produce UH-1Y helicopter airframe structures over an eightyear period. That potential $100 million pact, and other deals, meant Crestview hired 40 additional employees for its Okaloosa facilities.
Three investor-owned utilities (Gulf Power, Progress Energy and Florida Public Utilities) and five electric cooperatives (West Florida EC, Talquin EC, Escambia River EC, CHELCO and Gulf Coast EC) offer reliable power to the region at competitive pricing.
In preparation for future power needs, Tallahassee is a 20% partner in Taylor Energy Center, an 800-megawatt power plant slated to be built in Taylor County about 50 miles southeast of the capital city. The $1.5 billion project on 3,300 acres will create 1,500 construction jobs and 180 permanent jobs. Construction is slated to begin in 2008 and operations in 2012. Tallahassee is also considering participation in a $100 million biomass electric plant that would be located on Florida State University property.
Six community colleges work with both business and the workforce system to reinforce and expand this region's sound economy. Among them are Tallahassee Community College, which was ranked 24th in the nation in 2005 for associate degrees awarded; Pensacola Junior College, recently awarded $1.32 million by the U.S. Secretary of Labor for its healthcare program; and Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, ranked second among Florida's 28 community colleges for student GPAs at the university level.
Three state universities also serve the Northwest. At Florida State University in Tallahassee, where research programs are among the strongest in the country, eight graduate students and alumni received the prestigious Fulbright Award in 2006. In addition, FSU offers upper division classes at its Panama City campus. Florida A&M in Tallahassee, is particularly noted for its College of Pharmacy. The University of West Florida offers classes in arts and sciences, business and professional studies at several sites--the 1,600-acre main campus just north of Pensacola, the Fort Walton Beach campus and at Eglin Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Hurlburt Field and Whiting Field.
Tallahassee, Florida's capital city, is the new home of Danfoss Turbocor Compressors, a manufacturer of oilfree centrifugal compressors for commercial air conditioners. Turbocor relocated its headquarters and manufacturing plant from Montreal in 2006.
Joe Orosz, Turbocor president, says easy access to markets, proximity to two major seaports, local high-tech resources and a young, educated workforce helped prompt the move. "We needed a location that could support growth in a high technology product both from development and manufacturing perspectives."
Turbocor's new $7 million, 65,000- square-foot facility will quickly create 90 high-wage jobs and up to 150 new jobs over five years, plus nearly 200 jobs in support industries. Engineered Cooling Services, for instance, opened a 15-employee Tallahassee branch to work closely with Turbocor.
Other recent Leon County growth includes Southeast Corporate Credit Union, which expanded its longtime corporate headquarters, making $5 million in capital investments for building construction, equipment and infrastructure upgrades and adding up to 40 jobs.
Opportunity Florida is a regional economic development alliance for Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties. The goal, says Executive Director Rick Marcum, is to provide the connectivity, resources, knowledge and leverage to help make things happen for business.
Calhoun County in the rural heart of the region offers several commercial and industrial sites, including a 200- acre, county-owned industrial park 15 miles south of I-10. "Our best hope for development" centers on expansion of the airport at the park, says Maxie Waldorff, chairman of Calhoun's industrial development authority.
Calhoun has about $2 million in 2006-07 federal and state grants for paving the 3,000-foot runway and making other airport improvements. The airport now has 12 T-hangars, a 10,000-square-foot maintenance hangar and a fuel farm. A five-year plan calls for the construction of more hangars and the expansion of fueling capacity, says Waldorff.
Jefferson, Wakulla, Leon and Gadsden counties are all poised for more growth, says Brad Day, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee/Leon County. The four counties are slated to participate in the five-year Foresight Fund initiative, which aims to raise more than $3 million for economic development. Goals include the creation of 2,000 high-wage jobs in targeted industries, the development of 2,500 acres of new business park land, and the realization of $200 million or more in new capital investment.
Businesses will find room for expansion in the Northwest, where 7% of the state's population lives on 20% of the land.
South of Tallahassee in Wakulla County, The Inn at Wildwood nature- based lodge has opened in Crawfordville. Surrounded by 1,000-plus square miles of national forest, coastal refuge and parks, the 71-room Inn at Wildwood offers easy access to a dozen rivers and spring-fed streams and has plenty of meeting space.
In Franklin County, Apalachicola Bay is fed by the Apalachicola River, Florida's largest river in terms of water volume. It flows south from Georgia for 100 miles, offering some of the most beautiful scenery in Florida and many opportunities for ecotourism. In Jackson County, which borders both Georgia and Alabama, a newly opened Family Dollar distribution center has about 500 employees who live in Jackson, as well as Holmes, Washington, Calhoun, Gadsden and other nearby counties. The massive facility is at Marianna/Jackson County Distribution Park, which is also home to Arizona Chemical's new resin distribution center.
About 15 miles northwest of Marianna, a new $7 million Waste Management power plant is turning methane gas from a nearby landfill into electricity. The 4.8-megawatt plant is the first major green-power facility for Alabama Electric Cooperative and its Jackson-based affiliate, West Florida Electric Cooperative.
Also in northwest Jackson County, a $70 million state correctional facility is under construction near Graceville. When completed, the prison will employ nearly 300 people and generate an annual payroll of about $13 million. Officials estimate that overall economic impact will be about $70 million per year.
-- Gary Shepherd