Pensacola, where per capita income has lagged the state average by up to 20%, used to hail jobs for jobs' sake. But the city appears to be trading up, replacing industries that have closed with better-paying employers.
"I think landing Washington Mutual in 1999 was a real turning point," says Mike Frey, vice president of economic development for the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce. The company brought 300 mostly customer service jobs to start and by the end of this year should employ 575, paying an average of $13 an hour.
When First Data Corp. closed its 800-employee operation last Thanksgiving, West Corp., a teleservices company, stepped in, bringing with it positions paying 30% more and eventually providing 50% more jobs.
More recently, GE Generators purchased an old Westinghouse facility. The company committed to 200 jobs to start, averaging $18 an hour. It is also filling more than 20 management positions to support the facility at an average salary of $65,000 and is projecting long-term growth. Jobs such as these have boosted the average pay in the area from $10.27 an hour to $12.13, Frey says.
Pensacola has also benefited from expansion of a home-grown company. Last year, Network Telephone grew from 150 to more than 700 employees, paying an average of $13 an hour.
With the momentum, Frey is optimistic. "I think Pensacola is coming up on a lot more radar screens than three years ago. When a consultant calls and says, 'We're looking at Pensacola,' you know you're doing something right."
People to Watch
Collier Merrill, who hails from a family of large landowners in Destin, is making his own mark with his leadership and business acumen, say local officials. President of J.C. Merrill Investments, he's a restaurateur, developer and member of the Florida Board of Regents.
Freshman State Rep. Holly Benson (R-Pensacola) has hit the ground running since her election last November. An attorney in private practice, one of her claims to fame is writing speeches for former President George Bush's administration. She's been appointed to the Council for Competitive Commerce, Economic Development & International Trade and the Health & Human Services Appropriations committees, among others.
Businesses to Watch
The University of West Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, which attracts researchers from throughout the world, now has more than $12 million in grants. Fifty researchers and 70 staff members are working on projects for companies such as Procter & Gamble and Boeing. The institute's move from the University of West Florida campus to more centralized facilities in downtown Pensacola has
contributed to its elevated profile, say local officials.
Developer High Point Hotel Corp. has its corporate headquarters and three of its 13 hotels in Pensacola. The company has purchased other properties and plans to expand in and around Pensacola. High Point specializes in building and managing Marriott and Hilton brand hotels.
The Pensacola metropolitan area had the highest increase in single-family home sales (+15.7%), condominium sales (+41.6%) and resales (+22%) of all counties in the Northwest region last year.
Panama City: Dramatic Change?
Two things have happened recently that are destined to change Panama City dramatically in the next five years, says Ted Clem, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance. First, its largest landowner, St. Joe, has gone into the development business. St. Joe owns about 50% of Bay County and has several major developments in the works.
The second is Bay County's participation in Florida's Great Northwest, a regional economic development effort. Clem says the partnership enables him to better market the area to site selectors and companies considering relocation. "For years, we've been one of the state's biggest tourism attractions, and now we're looking forward to being one of the state's biggest business attractions," Clem says.
St. Joe's commercial division is developing the Beckrich Office Park, a multi-use development with office and retail facilities less than one mile from the beach. It's a new type of office complex for Panama City. Clem says having the upscale business park will allow him to attract different types of companies. St. Joe has also donated land for a new airport in Bay County and offered additional land for a much-needed highway between Panama City Beach and Dothan, Ala.
The new developments couldn't have come at a better time, says Clem. A recent study showed that only 15% of business decision-makers could even identify where Panama City is. "So that means 85% of my prospective businesses have no clue where we are." He predicts that between St. Joe's investments and Florida's Great Northwest, all that will change. "We can now envision things that were never possible years ago."
People to Watch
State Rep. Allan Bense (R-Panama City) is hoping to become Speaker of the House after reapportionment in 2004. The general contractor, real estate developer and golf course owner won kudos for his role in beach preservation. Just beginning his second term, Bense serves as chairman of the Council for Ready Infrastructure and is also on the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee.
Joe Chapman, banker and owner of the Boardwalk Beach Resort, is planning changes for the four hotels and 1,700 feet of gulf-front property. The founder of Peoples First Community Bank plans to expand the current conference center to accommodate larger groups and convert two of his independent hotels to condominiums to accommodate the increase in second-home and year-round residents.
Businesses to Watch
The Bay Point Resort has been selected to participate in the "Marriott Vacation Club" program. Marriott's Legends Edge at Bay Point will complete the first of three six-story buildings, a total of 120 units, by April 13. The villas will be used exclusively by club members who are part of the company's international timeshare program.
Pier Park, a public/private venture between the St. Joe Co. and the city of Panama City Beach, is revitalizing the city's pier district. The master plan includes 50 acres of retail shops and restaurants, a 30-acre attraction area and 80 acres of commercial highway frontage. The first phase, which will break ground this fall, will be anchored by a 200,000-sq.-ft. retail outlet center, a 1,500-seat Grand Ole Opry Theater and a 13,000-sq.-ft. Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville.
Panama City had the highest unemployment rate of all metropolitan communities in Northwest Florida in January at 8.7%, compared with 3.8% statewide.
Destin: Getting Noticed
Scott Jackson has a problem. As vice president of Emerald Coast Jobs, he specializes in finding job-seekers high-tech positions in the Destin area and the rest of Northwest Florida. Trouble is, right now he can't help about 1,500 highly recruited technology workers who are turning down other offers hoping to get one from Destin. Many, he says, are willing to take a $20,000 pay cut just for the opportunity.
"We deal with clients from all over the U.S.," Jackson says. "I have résumés of senior software engineers and computer science Ph.Ds. I have a CEO in Silicon Valley I've been trying to find a job for over a year. He has a $2-million home and wants to live close to the water and simplify."
Even though Destin and the surrounding area have dozens of small and midsized companies that design and manufacture products for military and industrial use, jobs aren't being created fast enough. Larry Sassano, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, says he's hoping the exposure Destin gets to the corporate world through vacation travel will help change that. "The area is becoming like a little Boca -- a little Palm Beach," he says. On weekends corporate jets are lined up on the runway of the Destin airport. "The chairmen of some of the largest corporations have condos here."
In fact, he says, it's not unusual to be at the gym and overhear someone on a cell phone closing a multimillion-dollar deal. "I don't have to sell the area," Sassano says. "I just need to make people aware of the business benefits in the region."
People to Watch
Suzanne Fife, group sales manager for Abbott Resorts, has the unusual job of selling meeting planners on the concept of using multiple sites to house guests, then shuttling attendees to available meeting space. Instead of hotel rooms, visitors stay in condominiums and bungalows with full-size kitchens, maid service and, sometimes, laundry facilities. Fife's pitch seems to be working: She's more than doubled the amount of group bookings since she started a year ago.
Destin City Councilman Craig Barker has been described as "an engineer with a vision for the city." Barker was first elected in 1996 at age 28 and is the youngest member ever to serve on the City Council. He was recently re-elected for a second term. He is starting a company to market and sell a new fishing reel concept he has invented and patented.
Businesses to Watch
Legendary Inc. has added a marina to its diversified portfolio of projects. The Mid-Bay Marina is nearing completion on the south end of the Mid-Bay Bridge and is said to be one of the largest dry storage marinas ever built. Legendary's other projects include: Regatta Commons upscale office park, Tony's Pasta By the Sea and the Crystal Beach Coffee Co. Legendary is also the parent company of one of Destin's hot spots, Harry T's Boathouse.
Global E-Telecom, a fast-growing information technology company, was recently featured on CNN and PBS. The company owns the first technology developed for processing checks electronically at the checkout counter, meaning retailers get paid immediately.
Okaloosa County's air traffic increased 11.6% from the third quarter 1999 to the third quarter in 2000, according to the Haas Center for Business Research & Economic Development. The regional airport is undergoing a $38-million expansion that will triple its size.
Transportation and education are the biggest priorities in Florida's westernmost county. Residents are frustrated over the county's consistently low school rankings, says Doug Kinsinger, president and CEO of the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. Many attribute problems to a lack of cooperation between the school board and administrator. Voters elected a new superintendent of schools, which Kinsinger says has many feeling more optimistic.
As for transportation, the county has been experiencing the same problems with costly air service as other second- and third-tier communities. Recent upgrades to the airport, including a new expanded terminal building, two new gates, expanded ticketing and baggage claim and 750-space garage, have made it more attractive for recruiting competitive air service, says Kinsinger. Last year, airlines were upgrading their aircraft from jet-prop to regional jet aircraft, and Northwest Airlink added all-jet service to its Memphis hub.
Funding options for roadway improvements, including the I-65 connector and I-110 extension, are being developed. Kinsinger says the chamber has combined efforts with tourism departments in cities across the state line in an effort to get funding from Washington, D.C. Between the newly formed "Gulf Coast Chamber Coalition" and supportive senators and congressmen, he says relief is in sight.
Business to Watch
Helicopter Technology, which refurbishes and sells parts for F-1100 and Bell 206 helicopters, recently moved to Century to tap its strong aviation workforce. The company expects to employ 60 people to start.
Renovation and expansion of the former Fort Walton Square, now called Uptown Station, is nearing completion. One of the largest single pieces of property in Fort Walton Beach, the center is more than 90% leased and has more than 40 stores. There were 3,497 condominium units within a two-mile radius of the center when construction started. Another 836 are being built. Tourism continues to increase on the Emerald Coast, which attracted about a half-million more visitors last year from the year before.
Groundbreaking will begin this year on a 70,000-sq.-ft. conference/civic center on Okaloosa Island. The center will accommodate groups of 2,300.
In northern Okaloosa, Crestview Aerospace announced its biggest contract ever, a $270-million deal that is expected to help increase sales from $20 million to $50 million over the next 10 years and has already added another 90 workers.
Business to Watch
ITD of Destin, a manufacturer and distributor of surge protectors for home and industrial use, won a $5-million Navy contract last year. The company has doubled its workforce and expects to beef up its staff another 50% in the next year. Revenues also doubled, from $2.2 million in 1998 to $4.5 million last year. The company is on target to double sales again this year.
Last year, the county Tourist Development Board approved a new direction for marketing Panama City. Instead of focusing on travel by families, the area is targeting convention and meeting business, snowbirds and corporate travel. Bob Warren, executive director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council and president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the focus on the family kept Panama City vulnerable to seasonal dips. Bay County's bed-tax collections through the third quarter of last year fell 8.1% from the previous year.
As part of its new approach, the TDC launched its first "Winter Resident Appreciation Day" for snowbirds, who received discount cards honored by 700 local businesses. Winter residents number up to 15,000 annually and inject $30 million into the economy, says Warren. The appreciation day was an effort to build on that business. The meetings and convention business might prove a little more difficult, Warren admits. "We've got 20,000 rooms here ... but no convention center."
Business to Watch
Once an asphalt company, GAC Contractors changed direction in 1995, rebuilding four hotels damaged by Hurricane Opal. The new projects proved lucrative, so the company updated its business plan to include general contracting and has since tripled sales and doubled its workforce.
St. Joe's WaterColor development closed on 105 contracts last year. It also received several contracts on the first cottage lots along the company's Park Row, which abuts Grayton Beach State Park. Three lots sold for an average of $725,000. St. Joe also completed the first of two Tom Fazio-designed golf courses at Camp Creek. It should be open for play beginning in May.
Sales of residential lots at Arvida's Water Sound, a secluded, gated village located on a mile of beachfront, are expected to begin the second half of this year.
Retail development is moving in to serve residents of the new Arvida communities. Grayton Corners, a retail-restaurant-office complex, is being built on the only developable corner of Scenic Highway 30-A and County Road 283.
Infrastructure improvements aren't far behind. Sacred Heart Health Systems is building a 50-bed hospital and medical office building.
Kriss Titus, executive director of the Beaches of South Walton, says the county is courting international travelers now that the new county airport will make the area more accessible. International visitors appreciate South Walton's plethora of homes and cottages available for rent, Titus says, because they usually stay longer -- 14 days or more. About 60% of the area's 8,000 rental units are occupied year-round, she says, at an average rate of $161 a night.
Business to Watch
SanDestin Golf and Beach Resort expects to build out its 2,400 acres in the next five years with a $400-million expansion announced last year. Currently the property features 730 rooms on 7.5 miles of beach and bayfront property. The property includes 73 holes of golf, 14 tennis courts and a 98-slip marina.
Santa Rosa County has the fastest-growing bed tax revenue in Northwest Florida, says Rick Harper, director of the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development.
The military is still a dominant industry for the area. It generates about 28% of salaries and wages in the county, compared to 20% in neighboring Escambia.
Fred P. Duplantis, executive director of Team Santa Rosa Economic Development Council, says the county has made some progress in diversifying its job base. TRX has a lease-to-purchase agreement on the 80,000-sq.-ft. Vanity Fair building in the city of Milton. While it currently employs 300, the company is expected to reach 600 employees by next year, with wages from $7.50 to $9 an hour.
The Truck Driving Institute has broken ground on its 10,000-sq.-ft facility in the Santa Rosa Industrial park in east Milton. It will employ 75 at an hourly wage of $9 to $12, but Duplantis says a potentially bigger benefit will come from the 1,000 truck drivers it will train every year.
Business to Watch
Hom/Ade Foods, which provides frozen bakery products for Wal-Mart and distributes nationally, employs 24 and is building an 18,000-sq.-ft facility near the TRX Commerce Park. It will add another 15 to 20 jobs. Pay will likely be $6 to $9 an hour.
The influx of subcontracting and industrial companies crossing from Leon County has added five firms to the Gadsden 10/90 Commerce Park, with another two in the works. The park covers about 130 acres and has 24 buildings either already completed or under construction.
Gadsden 10/90 has also spurred development around the nearby I-10 interchange. An $8-million Williams Travel Center is completed, and a hotel should be under construction by the end of the year. There's also a Pepco RV & Travel Center under construction, and a Waffle House is on the way.
In nearby Gretna Industrial Park, a Hanson's Pipe & Products plant is up and running with 20 employees and is expected to create another 15 jobs. Hanson's is the largest concrete and pipe manufacturer in the U.S.
St. Joe has been approved by the Gadsden Planning & Zoning board to develop 296 acres for light industry. The property is west of the new Talquin Electric Sewer Project.
Retail is on the upswing, too, says Sherry VanLandingham, executive director of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Authority. A 35,000-sq.-ft. grocery store, expected to add 50 jobs, will begin construction in April in West Quincy.
Business to Watch
In a town where shops are open generally from Sunday through Wednesday, Market Cafe has proven that you can survive by staying open seven days a week. Before it opened a year ago, eating out Thursday through Saturday was limited to a Subway shop. Several restaurants tried and failed.
Gulf County had the biggest drop in unemployment rates in the region for three straight quarters last year, according to the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development. It posted 5.2% unemployment in the third quarter of 2000, compared with 10.3% a year earlier.
Workers have been finding employment at new prison facilities and in neighboring counties. A new St. Joe project, The Point at Sabal Beach, should provide more construction jobs by the end of the year. The 80-acre community with 110 lots will feature beachfront and vacation homes, a pool club, several community docks and an extensive conservation area.
Economic developers are hoping to drum up business for the area's deep-water port, trying to make it operational again.
In Franklin County, Carrabelle is getting some upscale development. Timber Island Resort, located on an island surrounded by the Carrabelle River and St. George Sound, is in its preconstruction sales phase. Home prices in the gated community will start at $149,900.
Person to Watch
Apalachicola native "Ms. Ruth" Schoelles of Prudential Resort Realty started her career at age 50. Now 67 years old, she is among the top 3% nationally for Prudential, closing 93 transactions last year -- an accomplishment considering her primary market is the downtown historic district -- not the high-dollar beaches -- and the town only has a population of 2,500.
Schoelles also manages the Apalachicola Housing Authority, is a member of the Gulf Coast College Workforce Board and Executive Committee and serves on the Franklin County Planning and Zoning Board.
Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty
One of the biggest problems for rural counties in Northwest Florida is a lack of infrastructure or facilities that are in dire need of upgrades, say local development officials. Many communities are under a Department of Environmental Protection consent order, which means their services will be limited in the future if they don't find the millions of dollars needed to fix their water and sewer problems.
Calhoun County is slated to be designated an enterprise zone, allowing certain industries moving into the area to qualify for special incentives, including tax refunds of up to $6,000 per new job.
Several companies have made good on their promise of jobs last year. In Jackson County, the Sykes call center has as many as 150 employees. Employment should reach 500.
Sunshine State Cypress, which makes cypress lumber and mulch, is now up to 40 workers in Liberty County. A water bottling plant is also under construction east of Bristol at White Springs. It should be operational by fall.
Community leaders in Holmes County got on the train of business recruitment by appointing a new director of economic development and tourism, Jyl Eichmann.
Person to Watch
Johnny Eubanks has published the Calhoun-Liberty Journal for 20 years and has been the volunteer executive director of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce for nearly as long. Area workforce development officials credit Eubanks with boosting prospects for industry in this timber-rich county.
Regional statistics, including population, income and labor information, are included in the print edition only. To order a print copy of the April issue, call (727) 821-5800. To subscribe to Florida Trend online, click here.