While FGN is educating prospects about northwest Florida, Opportunity Florida is laying the groundwork for its eight rural counties to follow through on inquiries, lending its expertise when necessary. Led by Executive Director Richard Williams, Opportunity Florida also helps counties get enterprise-zone status.
While the activity hasn't generated any job gains yet, it has begun to dispel skepticism about the group's seriousness and has produced more inquiries.
Williams says communities need to focus on being ready when prospects call: "It doesn't do any good for counties to be contacted if they don't have the resources to respond."
Pensacola & Escambia County
Key Trend: As part of an effort to diversify the cargo it handles, Pensacola's natural deepwater port started handling DaimlerChrysler vehicles last year from Tampico, Mexico, with more on the way. The port's ability to provide indoor storage and beefed-up security contributed to Daimler's decision to use Pensacola. Located in the heart of downtown and adjacent to the historic district, the port was once mired in debt and considered an eyesore. It's now considered a key element to downtown redevelopment.
People to Watch: Business leaders credit the combined efforts of Pensacola News Journal Publisher Denise Ivey and Executive Editor Randy Hammer with spotlighting local problems and organizing leadership and forums to address them. They are now stepping up efforts to improve education and the environment.
Business to Watch: Baptist Health Care turned heads recently when it was listed 10th among Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For." It was also recognized last year by a leading surveyor of patient satisfaction for "improving healthcare across America." With 492 beds, the company's Baptist Hospital is 25th on Fortune's list of the largest not-for-profit hospitals in Florida.
Major Challenge: A federal grand jury is investigating several land purchases by the county commission, including a former Buick dealership and soccer complex.
Panama City & Bay County
Key Trend: St. Joe Co.'s Pier Park project, a multiphase entertainment and retail-shopping project in Panama City Beach, will break ground this spring. The project was delayed when a circuit court questioned the use of bonds for infrastructure, saying it didn't qualify for a community redevelopment designation. The ruling was later reversed. The master plan features an 80-acre city park, 25 acres of beach frontage, 50 acres of retail outlet shopping and restaurants, and 70 acres of commercial retail parcels.
Person to Watch: Tom Neubauer, Neubauer Realty, has become the self-designated leader of the second round of "visioning" for Bay County. Assisted by the Gulf Coast Community College's Leadership Institute, Neubauer will have to deal with the explosive growth spurred by construction of a new airport and numerous developments by St. Joe Co.
Business to Watch: Nextel Partners, which relocated to Panama City Beach's Beckrich Office Park last year, moved into its 65,000-sq.-ft. customer care center and has started hiring. Chamber officials expect the move will bring 600 new jobs to Bay County, giving the local economy an estimated $10-million boost.
Major Challenge: West Bay homeowners will have to get used to some changes as the Panama City/Bay County International Airport moves in. In addition, St. Joe Co., which owns 39% of Bay County, has unveiled development plans in and around the area, including its first RiverCamps project.
Fort Walton & Okaloosa County
Key Trend: The U.S. defense budget is the biggest it's been in two decades -- good news for the 300 defense contractors in Okaloosa County. President George Bush visited local military installations to thank Special Forces, and Gov. Jeb Bush has pledged his support at the state level.
Business to Watch: Aerospace Integration Corp., headed by George L. Gonzalez, is one of the fastest-growing defense contractors in the area. The company, which provides engineering, manufacturing and systems integration services to Department of Defense clients, broke ground on a 65,000-sq.-ft. facility at the Crestview Bob Sikes Airport.
Major Challenge: The Economic Development Council in Okaloosa County successfully lobbied the county commission to commit to addressing infrastructure needs -- stormwater, sewer and roads -- in four areas for industrial development. Companies considering the area want reassurance that infrastructure will be in place at least in the foreseeable future. The EDC's latest challenge: Getting those improvements in time to fit its "smart growth" plan.
Apalachicola & Franklin Counties
People to Watch: Developers are breathing new life into the bankrupt Alligator Point Marina. Now called the Pelican Bay Yacht Club & Marina, the facility is being resurrected with a private clubhouse for members, public ship store and 29 new townhomes. Partners Robert Parrish, Jim Rudnick and Barry Poole plan to have most of the renovations and 10 of the townhomes completed by summer.
Company to Watch: AUS Manufacturing Co., a recent spinoff from Applied Utility Systems in Irvine, Calif., started up in Bonifay in January 2001 and is already operating in the black. The company, which makes burners for the electrical generation industry, exports products as far away as Egypt.
Company to Watch: Despite industry cutbacks, Rex Lumber Co. recently announced it would open a facility in what is now an abandoned sawmill in Graceville in Jackson County. Encouraged by incentives and nearly $2 million in grants to make road improvements, the mill is expected to create 100 jobs when fully operational.
Person to Watch: Lane Rees, recently elected chairman of the Walton County Commission, is reorganizing the county to increase efficiency. In addition to creating new divisions under a county administrator system, he's credited with streamlining commission meetings and improving public participation. Rees also serves on the board of the local chamber, the Tourist Development Council and the Florida Association of Counties.
Santa Rosa County
Company to Watch: Started with just $2,000 in 1993, Elysium Power Solutions in Gulf Breeze posted a 617% jump in revenues over the past five years to $3.7 million. The company, founded by Vince Odenbrett, provides power-protection products and services such as battery backup, surge protection and power generators.
Person to Watch: John A. Hendry, Arvida/St. Joe's project general manager for Gulf County and Mexico Beach, has become known as "Mr. Gulf County." Hendry is focusing on St. Joe's 80-acre WindMark Beach community. The development scored a major victory when county commissioners voted recently to move U.S. 98, which is at WindMark's front door, farther away so more of St. Joe's beach property can be developed. Hendry's last major project: Leading the redesign of Jacksonville's downtown master plan.