Economic Development: Leading the Charge- Northwest- Nov. 2003
So why leave to take a post as executive director of Florida's Great Northwest, the 16-county region's marketing organization -- with less than one-sixtieth the budget and a staff of four, including himself?
"It's getting me back to the things I like to do best," says Wenstrand, 52, on the job since Sept. 2. "The legislative part of my former job had started to become frustrating and kept me from the project work I like.
"I looked at the geography: The population is three-fourths of Nebraska's, but the land mass is about 20% of what we were covering. I was in an airplane two or three times a week.
"It's intriguing," he says of the prospect of luring new businesses and jobs to the increasingly self-aware region, a mix of rural culture, beachside chic and aerospace installations operating on the vanguard of modern warfare.
"I understand issues with the military," Wenstrand says. "I lived a mile-and-a-half from Offutt Air Force Base."
Wenstrand taught high school and held a county development job before his five-year Nebraska stint. State successes during his tenure included luring a $200-million MCI Network Services center to Omaha, nurturing three Becton Dickinson pharmaceutical expansions and dotting rural areas with eight ethanol plants and a bevy of call centers.
His first steps in northwest Florida will be getting to know the communities and understanding expectations of the business partners. "You have to have a product to sell, and prospects. Also, new business development is assuming greater importance. Technology companies tend to be small startups that grow; those are the knowledge-based workers, where per capita income is growing most."
Wenstrand replaces Al Cook, who left after less than two years for a local development post in his native Alabama. During those development years, board and staff worked together on creating awareness, says board chairman and Gulf Power Co. economic development manager Bob Cordes. "Judging by surveys, and the increase in prospect leads, we've done that."
James Richburg, president of Okaloosa-Walton Community College, says Wenstrand's ultimate challenge is to diversify northwest Florida's low-wage, tourism-dominated economy.
Average wage in half the region's counties is below 70% of the U.S. average. (The statewide average is just under 88% of the national average.)
The Destin-based 47-member economic development alliance hasn't yet announced a project. "But we've worked on 5,000 jobs among prospects, and some are still to decide," says Business Information Director Andrea Moore. One, she says, is expected to announce soon.
IN THE NEWS
Century -- The city's hard-charging mayor, Benny Barnes, decided not to seek re-election. Barnes, 69, has held the post for nearly 14 years. Job creation was his top priority. He helped to develop an industrial park and bring a state prison to the north Escambia community.
Chipley -- Pensacola's Sacred Heart Health System won't buy Washington County-owned Northwest Florida Community Hospital after all, citing the Chipley hospital's need for an estimated $10 million in renovation and equipment. The decision follows months of studies and negotiations.
Destin -- A Publix store, the first phase of a 52-acre, retail-office-hotel center on U.S. 98, should open by mid-November, says developer Keith Howard, claiming his 1-million-sq.-ft. Grand Boulevard will contain more office space than all the rest of Destin.
Canadian doctoral candidate Hume Douglas discovered a beetle he says resides only in Okaloosa turf. Douglas named the new beetle C. Destinensis and spotlighted it in a recent master's thesis.
Gadsden County -- The state has taken ownership of Aspalaga Landing, a 500-acre undeveloped riverfront parcel, to add to the Apalachicola River project. Valued for its scenic qualities and biological diversity, the land was purchased by the Nature Conservancy from St. Joe Timberland Co. last year and held until the state could finalize the purchase.
Milton -- Whiting Field, the Navy's busiest airfield and basis for more than one-fourth of Santa Rosa County's economy, marked its 60th anniversary. German prisoners of war helped build the field in 1943.
Monticello -- Hit by a $3.2-million budget shortfall, Jefferson County Commission voted to lay off 22 employees in various departments.
Okaloosa -- Air Force officials plan to build 2,359 homes off-base for Eglin Air Force Base military families and 380 for personnel at nearby Hurlburt Field over the next five to 10 years. The move to upgrade living quarters could have a major impact on the economy, traffic and area schools.
Pensacola -- Gov. Jeb Bush has awarded SmartCOP Inc. one of 13 inaugural Governor's Business Diversification awards. SmartCOP develops technology for computer-aided dispatching and wireless mobile computing.
More than 10,000 residents of Pensacola and neighboring Gulf Breeze were drinking water polluted with radium 226/228 between 1996 and 2000, according to a Pensacola News Journal report. Escambia County Utilities Authority executives knew of the problem but delayed taking action, the report charged.
University of West Florida President John Cavanaugh unveiled his six-point Information Technology Strategic Plan at a campus town hall meeting. The plan calls for enhanced electronic infrastructure, improved e-learning, e-research support, web-based information delivery and an internet-based business environment and campus culture to be implemented over 18 months.
Port St. Joe -- Bankrupt Gulf Pines Hospital has a potential buyer, Morning Star Holdings, which has holdings in central Florida, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Santa Rosa County -- County officials and Navarre Beach residents will square off in Florida Supreme Court in December over county attempts to collect property taxes on leased island holdings. The county contends residents' leases exempt them from a tax on land but not buildings.
Tallahassee -- City and Leon County leaders have approved a blueprint for making Tallahassee a regional cultural center, potentially to include a performance hall, funded by an extra penny tacked onto the bed tax.
SANDESTIN -- Condo units sold at a rate of almost one every minute -- 112 in 121 minutes at prices from $200,000 to $1 million -- at a private sales event for the Bahia condominium complex at Sandestin's Village of Baytowne Wharf, setting a sales record for Canadian-based developer Intrawest.