Leaders say the region is showing signs of improvement, thanks largely to a state effort.
By Julie S. Bettinger
After a period of economic body-slams in the late 1990s, an eight-county region of northwest Florida appears to be rising slowly from the mat. In recent years, the eight counties -- Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington -- have lost thousands of jobs from a series of shutdowns that involved apparel and furniture manufacturers, a healthcare facility in Jackson County and the paper mill in Gulf County.
The job losses hit hard in a region that was already one of the most economically distressed in Florida: Five of the eight counties are among the worst in per capita income, per capita taxable value, average annual unemployment, poverty rates and employment stability.
Both Gulf and Franklin counties had already been hit by the commercial fishing-net ban, which cost about 500 jobs since 1995. Another 180 jobs were lost when a container manufacturer closed and other operations downsized. At one point, officials counted 2,000 lost jobs from 1995 through 1999.
The closure of the paper mill in Port St. Joe, which cost 800 jobs at the plant alone, was particularly tough as it rippled throughout the region. Drawing on raw materials from surrounding counties, the mill used about 13,000 cords of wood a week at a value of about $50 million annually, says Richard Williams, job-creation specialist for the Chipola Regional Workforce Development Board. "That's $50 million taken out of the economy."
Things got so bad that last November Gov. Jeb Bush declared the eight counties a "Rural Area of Critical Economic Concern," giving the area priority treatment for state grant money and other aid, including fast-track permitting to boost development.
The designation has allowed some counties to develop plans that should help build their infrastructures. For example, Liberty has no public wastewater system.
For others, the availability of incentives means they should have an easier time recruiting business. Two years ago, for example, McClane Co. was considering opening a distribution center in Jackson County. McClane ended up in Alabama -- mostly because that state had better incentives. Williams says the county might have landed the firm if it had the incentives it now has.
Since the designation, the region has shown signs of improvement. Gulf County's unemployment rate has dropped from 20.7% to 10.6% over the last year.
"Sometimes when you have the worst thing in the world happen to you, it's really the best thing," says state Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Marianna. This "opened some doors we never would have had."
In the News
Bay County -- Bad news for Berg Steel. The manufacturer of steel pipe for pipeline construction and repair announced another 41 employees would lose their jobs, bringing its workforce to 146 -- less than half of what it was a year ago. The company blames flat demand and a 33% increase in the cost of raw materials.
Escambia County -- A decision is expected by midsummer on offshore drilling near Pensacola Beach. Chevron U.S.A. and its partners want to sink up to 21 wells into a geological formation called the Destin Dome, about 25 miles south of the pristine beach community. The extracted natural gas would flow through a pipeline to a processing facility in Alabama and then into the nationwide natural gas pipeline system. U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary William Daley is reviewing arguments for both sides.
Okaloosa -- Tybrin Corp., a systems and software engineering services company based in Fort Walton Beach, is part of a team that landed a five-year contract with a potential value of $370 million. Tybrin will partner with Battelle Memorial Institute to provide engineering and high-level technical services on Air Force weapon systems.
UniversalCom of Destin has merged with NewSouth Communications Corp. of Greenville, S.C. Both companies are in the telecommunications business, operating as broadband integrated communications providers. UniversalCom will take on the NewSouth name. The company now has 800 employees at the two locations.
Panama City Beach -- Spring break was good for business. Officials estimate 500,000 students hit the beach between March 1 and April 10. An added bonus: About 1,800 students arrested for non-violent crimes generated $103,000 in fines.
The payment was three months overdue, but the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau finally agreed to make good on its promise to pay $100,000 to the sponsor of the Isuzu Ironman Florida event last fall. Tourist Development Council Executive Director Bob Warren says the event generated $1.9 million for the area and another $300,000 in media exposure.
Panhandle -- Gulf Power Co. is spending $35 million over five years to upgrade its distribution lines in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. The company, which serves 364,000 customers from Escambia to Jackson, just east of Panama City, is upgrading to accommodate an additional 71,000 customers expected to need service by 2009.
Six northwest Florida counties were selected by the Florida Association of Counties for an economic-development pilot. Targeting small and rural counties, the program assigns a representative to work with commissioners to assess barriers to development. Goals are mapped out for the counties, which can tap an $855,000 federal grant to achieve them. Out of the 27 rural counties applying, Dixie, Gadsden, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and Washington were determined to need the most help.
Tallahassee -- The Tallahassee Regional Airport landed a contract with Northwest Airlines to add three-times-daily service to Memphis via Northwest Airlinks. The turboprop service, which begins in July, will give travelers access to more than 220 flights out of Northwest's southeast hub. Tallahassee officials hope the move will lead to lower air fares from Delta Air Lines and USAirways.
Coldwell Banker Hartung, the top real estate firm with $83.3 million in sales last year, has merged with the fourth-largest firm -- independent Noblin Realty, with $52.8 million in sales. The merger has created rumors of a shuffle of agents, as Noblin associates adjust to paying a new 6% franchise fee off the top of each commission.