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A High-Tech Base

Okaloosa County economic development officials believe they already have a solid foundation for high-tech research. For one, Eglin Air Force Base, the nation's largest and mainstay of Okaloosa County's military-dominated economy, originated practically every advanced precision-guided "smart'' weapon in the Air Force's inventory in its laboratories, says Bob Arnold, technical adviser for the 46th Test Wing and chairman of the Eglin Encroachment Committee.

Just outside the base gate, in a 40,000-sq.-ft. building on leased Air Force land, the University of Florida's Research and Engineering Education Facility fills a complementary role, providing continuing education for Eglin's engineering workforce and also conducting research. Meanwhile, an estimated 320 defense contractors help give the county the largest concentration of technology-based companies in northwest Florida.

The region's economic developers now want to leverage those assets further. The centerpiece of their plan calls for a 110-acre research campus combining public- and private-sector research. The campus would include education and training programs of UF, the University of West Florida and Okaloosa-Walton College. It would focus on developing technology that has both military and commercial applications.

Private-sector research is all that's missing, says David Goetsch, vice president of Okaloosa-Walton College and a concept author. "We have the manufacturing base here right now ... but they're not doing the research here.''

The Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, taking the lead development role, is aligning project partners and a governing board and already has two "very enthused'' tenant prospects, says Executive Director Larry Sassano. The hope is that companies with a local presence will look to parent companies to allocate more research locally, that outsiders also will see the opportunities and that both will result in local prototyping and additional manufacturing. Project planners hope to break ground within a year. The cost? "Millions,'' potentially to include grant money, bonds and tenant financing.

The region needs that type of development, says Al Wenstrand, executive director of Florida's Great Northwest, the economic development driver for a 16-county area. "This is a model being put in place all across the U.S. For a knowledge-based society, this is where economic development is headed."