Getting a Handle on Growth
Growth is the catchword in northwest Florida -- how to attract the right kind and how to keep up with it, says Al Wenstrand, executive director of Florida's Great Northwest, a 16-county economic development force. The region's biggest growth catalysts are St. Joe Co. developments, military-defense spending, tourism and an influx of retirees.
Tourism growth in particular has sharply outpaced state and national gains -- with numbers for every county from Escambia through Walton up by more than 10% last year, says Ellis Bullock III, president of Pensacola ad agency E.W. Bullock Associates.
Meanwhile, new communities are beginning to push inland. "You're seeing huge residential developments planned for Freeport -- the first we've seen off the coast," says Tom Powell, executive director of the Walton County Economic Development Council.
Transportation problems persist -- including the lack of good north-south thoroughfares. In addition, "roads that are adequate now won't be for the growth we're seeing," says Wenstrand. Similarly, "the ports are a great opportunity but relatively undeveloped." Demand for industrial and business space is growing and frequently outstrips supply: "In the urban areas, there's real opportunity for developing some upscale, very classy business parks."
Regional strengths include a willing and skilled workforce, a strong post-secondary education system and a high quality of life. Business leaders say they're encouraged that the region is developing a reputation outside Florida as a good place to do business.
PENSACOLA & Escambia County
Major Trend: "One of the positive trends emerging in the past 24 months is the focus on entrepreneurialism," says Mike Frey, economic development vice president of the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce. Among initiatives under way: A quarterly venture capital forum bringing together investors and capital-seeking businesses; the February startup of the High Growth Business Club to help businesses with next-stage growth, and an Angel Venture Partners capital-investment fund kicking off soon. The city is trying to attract high-energy, intellectual entrepreneurs downtown and has hired consultant Ray Gindroz to upgrade its urban design blueprint, City Manager Tom Bonfield says.
Person to Watch: Gulf Power Co. CEO Susan Story, recently named Enterprise Florida's vice chair-elect, the first from northwest Florida, says the state's new strategic plan is on-track and relevant: "What's applicable to Florida is applicable to northwest Florida -- we need to diversify the economy." Gulf Power, she adds, is strengthening its economic development department.
Businesses to Watch: "We want our software to be shipping with every check scanner made worldwide," says Bryan Clark, CEO of Silver Bullet Technology. The software enables end users to use virtually any item-processing software with virtually any check-scanning hardware. It's now shipped with all Canon scanners and with certain other brands. ... Network Telephone Co. rang up No. 16 on last year's Inc. 500 list, first among telecommunications companies, with five-year growth of 6,093%. With 544 employees, and more than 132,000 lines in operation in nine states, "we plan to continue to grow the business," says President Leo Cyr.
PANAMA CITY & Bay County
Major Trend: Redevelopment momentum is sweeping Panama City Beach -- at least 18 condo projects are under construction with more in the planning stages, says Ted Clem, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance. Along with replacement of aging mom and pop hotels with higher-end condominiums -- and an expected shift from 62% motel-hotel to 60% condo by 2006 -- will come a more upscale tourist profile and more retail spending, predicts Bob Warren, Bay County Tourist Development Council executive director. Plans for a larger airport are already attracting additional investment interest and will enable the area to court international travel.
Person to Watch: "We have the opportunity to do some spectacular things here," says Steve Haemmerle, who recently switched venues from Chicago's popular Navy Pier, where he was assistant general manager, to the 266-acre Pier Park project at Panama City Beach. Haemmerle was hired by St. Joe Co. as vice president and general manager for the retail, hospitality and entertainment project, being partnered with beach city government.
Businesses to Watch: Oceaneering International will relocate an operating division from Houston to the Panama City port for design and manufacture of sub-sea production control umbilicals for the oil and gas industry, hiring 150 this year. ... Flautt-Cornerstone, the new partnership that bought Panama City Beach's Marriott Hotel and its two golf courses, is planning more than $15 million in improvements, including a Jack Nicklaus design for one of the courses and a $3-million spa. The aim: To create a full-fledged resort, says partner Buddy Runnels, president of Destin's Cornerstone Development Group.
APALACHICOLA & Frankling County
Key Trend: Franklin County last year realized the highest increase in taxable property values among Florida counties, topping 35%. The number of property sales per capita also led the state.
Person to Watch: State Rep. Will Kendrick is a critic-turned-champion of St. Joe Co. plans for SummerCamp on St. James Island near the coast, which recently received preliminary approval from the Franklin County Commission. The 499-home SummerCamp will attract mostly second-home buyers with its bottom-rung lot price of $250,000, says Kendrick. "It will raise the tax base and bring in people on the weekend, who will spend money and then go home. And we don't have to provide schools and other services for full-time residents."
FORT WALTON & Okaloosa County
Key Trend: Increased federal defense spending -- the county signed 10% of all Florida prime Defense Department contracts in fiscal '02 -- along with upscale tourism growth will give the county the region's strongest economy this year, predicts University of West Florida economist Rick Harper. "There's expansion in every corner," says Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce interim Executive Director Jim Breitenfeld, citing downtown Fort Walton Beach redevelopment, big new Destin shopping attractions and an industrial and residential boom at Crestview.
Person to Watch: Peter Bos, president of Legendary Inc. and a Destin waterfront visionary, is beginning to craft his HarborWalk "fishing village" from some 14 acres he assembled over the past dozen years. The $70-million first phase will contain 70,000 square feet of new retail, 174 timeshares, underground parking and a "festival entertainment theme."
Businesses to Watch: Fast-flying Crestview Aerospace will nearly double employment by 2007, with 400 new hires, mainly because Boeing selected the company to convert four C-130H model gunships to AC-130U gunships. Some 85% of workers are retired or former military. ... Military and commercial need for engineering services is powering growth for Fort Walton Beach-based Manufacturing Technology. It's building a new headquarters, expecting to add 80 to its 480-employee payroll.
Person to Watch: Patrick Schlenker, former Sacred Heart Health System vice president of regional services, is taking over money-losing Northwest Florida Community Hospital at Chipley, pledging to expand services and upgrade facilities. He'll match county capital funding of about $3 million with money from his own pocket.
Business to Watch: Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific is planning a 2005 startup for an oriented-strand board plant serving the construction industry, to be located at Hosford. The plant, a nearly $100-million investment, will employ about 125. It will also create activity for loggers, adding more jobs, says Liberty County Chamber of Commerce President Johnny Eubanks.
Business to Watch: Freeport Shipbuilding Group is launching a new venture, the first of its kind for the region, says division President Jim Murray. Its SunQuest Yacht Charters will offer catered yacht events and public dinner cruises. Freeport Shipbuilding, which sells charter yachts nationwide, also is designing and building the 150-passenger vessel.
Santa Rosa County
Person to Watch: Candy Zuleger, a lab analyst for eight years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, will open her own lab, Trinity DNA Solutions, this spring at Santa Rosa Industrial Park, hoping to become Florida's first private forensically accredited company -- able to review lawyers' criminal court cases. "There's a great need," says Zuleger, citing an FDLE backlog and Florida outsourcing to other states. She's also talking to private medical labs in Mexico City interested in paternity testing.
Person to Watch: Therapy and wellness entrepreneur Bill Williams, with partner Chauncey Belser, is launching Beacon by the Sea, a $7-million, 30-acre, Gulfside retirement community at St. Joe Beach. The village-style blueprint will offer independent and assisted living, medical and wellness services, 72 condominiums and 40 single-family home sites over a seven-year construction span. "We're trying to evolve healthcare dramatically -- that's the main deficit our county has," says Williams, also chairman of Gulf County's Health Care committee.
Business to Watch: Joint venture partners St. Joe Co. and Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. are exploring redevelopment options for the 126-acre site of the historic St. Joe Paper Co. mill, which Smurfit-Stone had operated. Demolition of the mill will be completed this year.
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