Gulf County shows signs of recovery, but ...
By Julie S. Bettinger
After the one-two punch of the commercial fishing net ban in 1995 and the closing of its largest employer in 1999, Gulf County appeared down for the count. Unemployment peaked at 20% in May 1997 and remained in double digits after the closing of the Florida Coast paper mill and the loss of its 800 jobs.
Today, some indicators point to a rebound: Unemployment hovers around 4%, for example. But labor market statistics suggest the fight's not over.
Following the closing of the paper mill, state Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Marianna, appealed to the governor for assistance. In an unprecedented move, Gov. Jeb Bush directed all state agencies to come up with a coordinated plan for helping Gulf County recover. The first step was breathing life into a corrections facility that had been empty for three years, which created 180 jobs immediately. State and federal aid for retraining workers followed, as did extended unemployment benefits and incentives for new and expanding businesses.
Still, statistics from the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation indicate that unemployment has fallen not because workers have found work in the county, but because they've either moved or found jobs in neighboring counties. And there's still an underemployment problem: The new jobs don't come close to the mill's wages and benefits packages.
Many local residents say they're back on their feet. John Reeves, 44, had worked at the mill for 20 years when it closed in 1999. He completed his associate's degree this past summer and is now expanding his Reeves Furniture and Refinishing Shop in the Port St. Joe business district. Reeves, who has been off unemployment since last spring, says he's grateful for the state and federal assistance. "If it hadn't been for the retraining monies, I'd hate to see what this community would have been like."
Karen Whaley, Gulf's Economic Development Council director, says other indicators of a recovery include 30 business startups and several expansions -- including restaurants, a marina, even the local newspaper. "People are coming back to the area. It's almost like we're going through a little boom time," she says.
There are also signs of life at the Port St. Joe deepwater port. Historically a privately owned facility used exclusively by the paper mill, the Port Authority has purchased land for a new deepwater ship berth and cargo staging area and just leased a dock area and warehouse with access to rail.
Kilmer says the new attitude is the strongest indicator of all. "You can ask anyone in the community how they feel about their future, compared to two years ago. The whole atmosphere is one of hope, and they know they're headed in a new direction."
In the News
DESTIN -- The Mid Bay Marina building will be the next canvas for internationally renowned artist Wyland to paint one of his 100 "Whaling Wall" marine life murals. Legendary Inc., owners of the marina, have agreed to raise $200,000 to offset the costs of painting the 71,560-sq.-ft. wall, part of the arts-in-public-places project sponsored by the non-profit Wyland Foundation. The mural will be created in October.
FORT WALTON -- Dr. Paul S. Hsu, president and CEO of Manufacturing Technology Inc., was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in the technology/communications category for Florida.
MILTON -- TRX Inc., an online travel fulfillment center based in Atlanta, has added 30 positions to its Milton operation. TRX provides technology and processing for travel agencies, airlines, hotels and corporations worldwide.
NICEVILLE -- After its first full year of operation, the Collegiate High School at Okaloosa-Walton Community College placed first among all 10th-graders in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for expository writing. The students placed fourth in the state for reading and fifth in math and posted a 100% graduation rate. The school allows 10th- through 12-graders to earn a high school diploma as well as a college degree through full-time study at the OWCC campus.
PANHANDLE -- Desperate to lower air fares, Pensacola has launched an effort to steal AirTran Airways from Okaloosa Regional Airport. Many Pensacola travelers fly out of other markets, where some fares are 50% cheaper. Okaloosa Regional is undergoing a renovation that will triple its size.
South Walton County and the cities of Carrabelle, Chipley, Graceville, Perry and Madison will receive money from this year's budget to help fix their wastewater treatment facilities. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has ordered several northwest Florida counties to repair their facilities or pay hefty fines.
PORT ST. JOE -- The EPA has approved a request to allow former and current owners of the Florida Coast paper mill to test the site and clean up any contamination. The state DEP had requested the feds allow St. Joe Co. and Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. to clean up the site rather than wait for a federal study that may have put it on the Superfund hazardous waste site list, which would have delayed redevelopment.
TALLAHASSEE -- General Dynamics Tallahassee has secured $22 million of a $712-million contract awarded by the U.S. Marine Corps.The parent company will design and build Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicles, which can function on both water and land. The vehicle's electronics system will be designed and built in Tallahassee, which will mean an additional 20 engineering and 20 production jobs.
Chief Technology Officer Cales Faces Probe
TALLAHASSEE -- The state's chief technology officer, Roy Cales, is the focus of a grand theft investigation by the Leon County Sheriff's Office. Investigators are looking into allegations that Cales falsified a letter from a local TV station in 1996 promising future business so he could secure a $35,000 bank loan for a company he headed, Integrity Data Inc. Integrity Data eventually went bankrupt, and Cales defaulted on the loan.
In 1985, Cales pleaded guilty to embezzling $1,800 from a previous employer, but charges were dropped when he admitted his guilt and paid back the money. As chief technology officer, Cales oversees 1,760 technology workers and a $600-million budget. He was placed on administrative leave after the investigation became public.