The oil spill isn’t the first event to make the point that diversifying the economy is a must, says Tom Graney, chairman of the Gulf County Economic Development Council. Take his county: "From 1995 to 2010, it’s been a downward ramp. Fishing was impacted by the net ban, the paper mill went away, we had a construction boom, then that stopped but we still had tourists coming — and now this. We’re trying to diversify."
Applied Research Associates has developed a biofuel process that converts renewable oils from biomass into jet and diesel fuel. ARA employs more than 300 in northwest Florida and anticipates growth this year will be 25%. Regional economic developers say R&D, along with renewable energy, are among areas they’d like to see grow to diversify the economy.
Larry Sassano, president of the Economic Development Council for Okaloosa County, makes a similar case for the Panhandle region, using the traditional three-legged stool analogy: "We have tourism, the military and — we used to have — construction. You can’t now just rely on the military."
The oil disaster could cost Florida $10.9 billion and 195,000 jobs, with northwest Florida bearing a big portion of that, according to a University of Central Florida analysis.
Tourism is being severely affected along the Panhandle coast, even though miles of its beaches are still untouched by oil. Construction went cold when the national recession hit. The oil spill has devastated fishing. Retail sales and real estate are still slumping, leaving local government budgets hungry for revenue.
Sassano recently teamed up with Florida’s Great Northwest, a 16-county economic development organization, to draft a $14-million economic relief plan for the region — a request directed to Gov. Charlie Crist, with money to come from BP. The plan would distribute $2 million each to five large coastal counties, $500,000 each to four smaller affected counties and provide $2 million for Florida’s Great Northwest marketing. The plan aims to aid small-business growth, recruit target industries and help economic development agencies deal with their own crimped budgets. Targeted industries could include manufacturing, aquaculture, off-beach tourism, renewable energy, health services, transportation, research and aerospace.
Florida’s Great Northwest recently has been laying groundwork by awarding worker training grants in potential growth fields. Now, says Chairman Jeff Helms, a PBS&J vice president, "We’ve got to brand and market our region even harder."