Pensacola's business landscape and its challenges can be summed up this way: retail sales - up; job growth - up; construction - up; air traffic - down.
At a time when the economic picture is mostly rosy for this westernmost Florida community, air travel is overpriced and inconvenient. An area accustomed to attracting business from around the region is instead losing air travel business to smaller counties with less attractive facilities.
"Pensacola is in a war right now to establish regional dominance for air travel," says Ellis Bullock, president of EW Bullock & Associates marketing services.
In an effort to entice airlines, the city just completed a major concourse expansion and enclosed a four-story parking garage, but the airlines haven't come. What has come is road traffic. "The place where Escambia is going to get pinched is inadequate roadway capacity," says Rick Harper, economist and director of the Haas Center for Business and Economic Development, University of West Florida.
Connecting to the Interstate 65 corridor and creating a clean shot to Pensacola is a big issue for economic developers, as well as public officials concerned for the safety of citizens during hurricane evacuation.
On the bright side, the city continues to position itself as a regional healthcare hub with more than $79 million in improvements nearing completion at three hospitals. And city planners hope to make downtown more of a front yard than a back yard. Though it's tough to get around the grossly misplaced heart-of-downtown sewer plant, the city is negotiating to buy an adjoining site for a nature park and a magnet for downtown.
People to Watch
R. Michael Saxon, district manager for Gulf Power Co., is a familiar face at economic development and philanthropic events. He is on more than a dozen civic boards and committees and holds four chairmanships. While spearheading United Way's fundraising campaign last year, Saxon helped the group achieve record contributions.
Developer John Carr, president of John S. Carr & Co., has a reputation for shaking things up. "He is the instigator, energy and planner behind many good things," says Jean Norman, director of economic development for Pensacola Junior College. Among his contributions: redeveloping the downtown area.
Businesses to Watch
Advantage Credit International, a credit report processor, ranks No. 8 among Florida's fastest-growing businesses based on revenues, according to a study by the University of Florida.
Network Telephone Co., a provider of local telecommunication services, recorded $1 million in revenues in less than a year. It provides service to more than 20 markets and expects to reach more than 60 before year end. It has announced plans to go public.
The median sales price for existing single-family homes in the Pensacola metro area was $99,600 in 1999, up 7% over 1998, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. The average resale price statewide was $106,900.
Fort Walton Beach: Something New, Something Old
While a number of Florida cities have put roads at the top of their infrastructure wish list, Okaloosa County has set its sights on a convention center for Fort Walton Beach. "We determined we were making about $11 million in group business and losing almost $11 million because we didn't have the facility," says Darrel C. Jones, executive director of the Tourist Development Council of Okaloosa County.
Last May, county commissioners voted to increase the bed tax from 2% to 4% and use the additional money to build the conference facility. The 68,000-sq.-ft. center, which is expected to be completed in 2002, would inject between $16 million and $20 million annually in the Northwest Florida economy, according to the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida. It would create between 391 and 489 jobs following construction and an annual increase in total tourism wages of between $5 million and $7 million.
While the bed tax will be used to build new convention facilities to accommodate visitors, Fort Walton Beach pioneer Susan Myers is focusing on redevelopment that appeals more to year-round residents. The great-granddaughter of Fort Walton's founder, John Thomas Brooks, has been quietly purchasing and renovating dilapidated properties in the historic waterfront district near Brooks Bridge, her family's namesake.
Myers says she is trying to carry out a vision that was crafted for the city by its leaders in 1994. She has renovated apartments, overhauled an office building and built six condominium units that look more like Southern-style homes perched at the Gulf of Mexico's front door. She also restored a restaurant that projects out over the water and landed a tenant for it. Her efforts helped inspire other local entrepreneurs with ties to the area to follow suit with their own renovations.
Surrounding communities such as Navarre, Destin and Sandestin are booming with newness, but, Myers says, "There's a growing awareness that Fort Walton grew first." Now Fort Walton is experiencing a rebirth, she says. "We're beginning over again, and I think we're going to do it in a very graceful, tasteful manner."
People to Watch
Jim Rester, a.k.a. "Mr. Walton County," played a key role in turning around the once-bankrupt Sandestin Resort, taking it to $120 million a year in sales. Now the head of St. Joe Co./Arvida's West Florida operations, he has overseen the sellout of a 90-lot subdivision in less than a year and is actively marketing the 1,140-unit Water Color residential development and the upscale Camp Creek. Both are in the South Walton/Seaside area.
Developer Jay Odom, with two successful residential developments in his wake -- Crystal Beach and Destiny -- has purchased the 275,000-sq.-ft. former Fort Walton Square shopping center for some $10 million, renamed it Uptown Station and is about to complete $3 million in renovations. Located on the seven-lane Eglin Parkway, Uptown's contemporary stucco exterior and tropical-style landscaping is breathing life into a neighborhood of early '60s architecture.
Businesses to Watch
Alpha Data Corporation, an information technology and engineering solutions firm, nearly doubled its revenues from about $6 million to $11 million from 1998 to 1999 and more than doubled its workforce. It's the kind of job generator that commands attention: The pay range for new jobs: $48,000 to $55,000.
Auto parts manufacturer Pex N.A. Ltd., a German-owned company located in Niceville, purchased a 28,000-sq.-ft. building to produce brake-wear sensors for both European and American cars and expects to hire 60 people this year.
Housing in Fort Walton Beach is a little expensive for the Panhandle. The median price for existing single-family homes sold in 1999 was $114,400, compared with less than $100,000 in Pensacola and Panama City. New-home sales for the third quarter 1999 increased 124% from a year earlier, primarily due to new communities neighboring Seaside and County Road 30A.
Panama City: Back to Fundamentals
The departure of Arizona Chemical's corporate headquarters following a merger cost Panama City 300 high-paying jobs last year. Paired with layoffs at Berg Steel Pipe Corp., Wellstream Inc. and Halter Marine Group, the employment picture looked bleak, particularly in light of the strong national economy. The job losses further underscored the need for an expanded employment base, and local business executives hope to make some headway in that direction by making better use of the city's airport and the underutilized seaport.
"We always talk about the new economy with the Internet," says Ted Clem, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance. "But you can never get away from the importance of the traditional infrastructure -- roadways, waterways and airports." Clem says better north/south access on highways 77 and 79 is at the top of the business community's wish list. "(Four-laned U.S. Highway 231) is a great road, but it's over capacity at peak tourist season."
The Panama City area could get a break from, of all things, the efforts of an Alabama congressional delegation. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby and Congressman Terry Everett are pursuing funding for interstate connections to I-10 in this year's budget.
Improvements for travel by air and water are on the horizon, too, it appears. Panama City won a $3.2-million grant from the state to conduct an intermodal market feasibility plan for enhancements to the airport and port. Despite being one of only 14 deep-water ports in the state, the 110-acre Panama City port handles no container traffic and is mainly used as a landlord facility. With improvements identified by the study, planners hope to capture some of the Latin American trade.
Air service at the Panama City-Bay County International Airport, which serves the six-county region, is limited. The facility has the shortest runway of the state's airports that allow jet traffic, says Chris Hine, St. Joe Co.'s vice president of commercial development, West Florida. St. Joe Co. has offered land for a new airport, and two sites are being considered.
People to Watch
Bob Warren has moved in as president and CEO of Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau and executive director of the Tourist Development Council. As the former tourism chief for Galveston Island, Texas, he says he hopes to solve Panama City's seasonality problems. Warren's track record includes broadening the Texas city's tourism base and improving nonseasonal traffic for the Lone Star State's beach destination, resulting in a 35% increase in revenues in five years.
Julie K. Hilton might have a famous name, but she's earning a reputation all her own in the hospitality industry. As co-owner of the six-hotel-and-resort Hilton Inc. (no relation to the other Hilton hotelier), interests in two other properties and partner in the law firm of Hilton, Hilton, Kolk & Roesch, she's in all the right circles. In addition to numerous hospitality boards, she is a director for the Jacksonville branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Businesses to Watch
The Trane Co., manufacturer of heating and cooling systems, is almost finished with its $50-million facility expansion from 100,000 to 350,000 square feet at Lynn Haven Commerce Park. The company expects to create about 350 new jobs for the area, 50 of which will be salaried positions.
Emerald Coast Bottling Co. is owned by the Patronis family, the personalities behind the highly successful Capt. Anderson's restaurant. Emerald bottles spring water from Bay County's Econfina Springs and distributes it locally through Culligan. The family has invested $500,000 in bottling technology and plans to expand distribution throughout the region.
The number of existing single-family homes sold in 1999 was up almost 10% from 1998, at a median price of $99,400. The Bay County Chamber of Commerce reports a median rent or $565 for apartments.
Job growth is still in the 3% range for Escambia, thanks to incoming companies. Pensacola beat out Alabama in an effort to lure Champion International Corp.'s lumber business. The company is investing $60 million in a high-tech sawmill to produce construction lumber. The move is expected to generate 120 jobs, mostly machinists and engineers, and will serve builders within a 250-mile radius.
Business to Watch
Financial services company Washington Mutual maintains a 50,000-sq.-ft. back office regional loan-processing center in Ellyson Industrial Park and is expected to have 250 to 300 employees by year's end. Pay is relatively high for the area, on average about $26,000 to $27,000.
The sixth-fastest-growing county in the state, Santa Rosa grew by nearly 23% over the past five years and outpaced the state average with 3% growth from 1998 to 1999. The county increased its total personal income by 6.6% and added 1,000 jobs for a 4% gain. Santa Rosa has been investing heavily in its infrastructure to accommodate industry. In addition to agreeing to build a 20,000-sq.-ft. spec building, the county is pursuing a master plan for the Santa Rosa Industrial Park. This will include increasing the size from 600 to about 1,500 acres.
Business to Watch
Quantum Products Co. of Northwest Florida Inc., manufacturer and distributor of spa accessories, has purchased five of the 40 acres in the new Jay Industrial Park, and a 15,000-sq.-ft. facility is now under construction.
Tourism and military are still at the root of Okaloosa County's growth. In 1990, the area had 6,790 rooms for short-term rental. Last year, that number was 16,670. Visitor numbers were up, pushing impact fees up by 13.57% (not including a two-cent increase in the bed tax to fund a convention center). Okaloosa is now the third-most popular drive destination in the state. "Ten years ago, we weren't even ranked," says Darrel C. Jones, executive director of the Tourist Development Council of Okaloosa County.
Okaloosa has shown its appreciation to the military by securing $2.5 million in the state's Defense Infrastructure Grant Program for local infrastructure improvements. About $1.2 million will be used to provide a reuse water line from the Hurlburt Field Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant to the Fort Walton Beach Industrial Park.
The seventh-fastest growing county in the state, Walton grew 25% in the past five years. Community leaders are set on improving services to the area, including healthcare. St. Joe Co. has offered 30 to 35 acres of land near County Road 30-A for Sacred Heart Hospital, with intentions of encouraging other medical-related facilities to relocate in the surrounding area. Two sites are under consideration, but plans are being contested by competing Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., which owns Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.
County lines between Bay and Walton are slowly being erased as a major road-widening project for Highway 98 -- from two to four lanes -- goes to bid this spring. Planners say they are leaving room for six lanes, spurred by the donation of seven miles of right of way by St. Joe Co.
Road expansion can't come soon enough, considering visitor counts. South Walton Tourist Development Council reports that bed-tax revenues were up 16% over the previous year, and -- especially significant to the local economy -- fall and winter revenues increased 17% over 1998.
Business to Watch
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, which has successfully positioned itself as a year-round destination, is planning a $400-million expansion, including 700 additional residential units, a hotel, a fourth golf course, a water park and 76,000 square feet of retail space.
Holmes, Jackson, Calhoun, Liberty
While traditional industries such as agriculture are shrinking, the correctional field seems to be thriving. State and federal prisons in the area, including work camps, have pumped government salaries and benefits into the economies of these largely rural counties, according to Richard Williams, job creation specialist with the Chipola Regional Workforce Development Board.
A newly designated Enterprise Zone has already helped Liberty County land a new business. Sunshine State Cypress Inc., a cypress lumber, sawmill and mulch operation, will bring as many as 60 jobs to the area.
In addition to the advantages offered by the Enterprise Zone, manager Rod Luttrell credits the county's willingness to expedite permitting for construction, the hiring and training assistance provided by the Regional Workforce Development Board and a tax incentive plan for influencing the company's decision to move to the area. The site, just north of Hosford, provides access to rail and the deep-water port at Port St. Joe.
Person to Watch
Rep. Bev Kilmer (R-Quincy) has managed to win over the good old boy network, despite being a freshman legislator in a heavily Democratic district. She has sponsored legislation to help rural counties compete for economic development and organized a community effort to draw government development funding.
Neighboring counties have lost their textile operations, but Washington is not only holding on to its own, it is benefiting from the industry's expansions.
West Point Stevens, a maker of linens, comforters and other textiles, has expanded twice in the last five years and now owns 25 of the 70 acres in Chipley Industrial Park. The company represents 800 jobs for the area. With the Chipley park almost at capacity, county commissioners are in the process of acquiring 200 acres to start a new industrial park, which will have rail access.
The District Department of Transportation office is another big employer and adds a great deal to the economy through the company it keeps. It means 416 state jobs and has attracted professional service firms to the area.
"There aren't many communities the size of Chipley that have 13 engineering firms," says Mayor Tommy McDonald.
Person to Watch
Tommy McDonald, mayor of Chipley, is also president of the Chamber of Commerce, Washington County's economic developer and director of Community Redevelopment. He was named League of Cities' Public Official of the Year 1999, the first time the designation went to a mayor in a rural community.
Year-round business is the battle cry of the hospitality crowd. Some businesses are doing more than others to make it a reality. Edgewater Beach Resort is adding a $4.5-million, 33,000-sq.-ft. exposition center to its current 110-acre property. Andy Phillips, general manager, says group bookings are already up 40% to 50% from last year. Boosting the seasonal slumps are events such as the Ironman Triathlon. Held last November, hotel revenues increased 35% in this typically lethargic time of year. The Thunder Beach 1999 street motorcycle event flooded the area with 10,000 motorcyclists and spectators last May.
As for growth, Ted Clem, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance, says, "Geography will dictate that any growth take place in the east and north -- not including Panama City Beach, which will grow to the west.''
Person to Watch
Glen McDonald, president of Applied Research Associates, has been credited with helping to protect area military bases from being closed and preventing the loss of defense grants. In addition to serving as chairman of the Economic Development Alliance, he is on the Base Realignment & Closure Committee.
The real estate market in Franklin County, sluggish only a year ago, has delivered some surprises, reports Harry Plumblee, an agent with Anchor Realty. Sales for January -- not considered a busy month -- went from eight transactions in 1998, to 18 in 1999 and 23 in 2000. The greatest challenge is lack of inventory. On St. George Island, the hottest market in the Gulf/Franklin area, Plumblee says there were only four listings in mid-February, ranging from a half-acre for $350,000 to a full acre at $649,000. The pace seems to have accelerated, too, as a lot that sat on the market for two years without a call suddenly had people bidding on it in December. It went for more than $6,000 over the asking price.
Construction will soon begin on Franklin's first 18-hole golf course and adjoining 600-unit country club community called St. James Bay. Encompassing 372 acres, the project is in the final stages of permitting. It's described by marketing director Freda White as "upscale but affordable" housing for year-round residents and second-home buyers.
Pristine Oyster, an oyster packing plant that uses a cryogenic process to kill bacteria in oysters, has contracted to move to Port St. Joe, bringing 50 jobs. Infrastructure constraints likely will frustrate county efforts to replace a former big employer -- the now defunct paper mill.
Business to Watch
Anchor Realty & Mortgage, the largest independent real estate firm in the region, has five offices from Mexico Beach to Carrabelle and has consistently been at or near the top of the charts in sales over the last few years.
The 518-acre Gadsden 10/90 office and industrial park sold last November, and buyers Lex Thompson and Sid Gray have had record closings ever since. In a recent week, they had closings lined up for three consecutive days -- all companies relocating from Leon County. The park's accessibility at the I-10/U.S. Highway 90 interchange helps. It's 15 minutes from Tallahassee's airport, the state Capitol and two universities. Plus, Thompson says, "Permits are issued in days, not months or years like they are in Leon County."
One hotel -- Howard Johnson's -- has already purchased a lot, and an extended stay hotel is in negotiation.
Ring Power purchased 28 acres in Midway and plans to move its operation and 80 jobs from Leon County. Most employees will likely opt to keep their jobs and make the 20-minute drive to Tallahassee city limits, says Sherry VanLandingham, executive director of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce.
Engelhard, a company that mines Attapulgite clay for paint, stucco and pharmaceuticals, consolidated its Florida and Georgia operations and has grown its workforce from 140 in 1997 to 250 today.
Business to Watch
Joelson Taylor Concrete Co., a maker of manhole covers and concrete pipes, will begin construction on its $4.5-million plant in the Gretna Industrial Park on July 1. It means an immediate 40 jobs.