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Around the State- Northwest- March 2000

Another High-Tech Corridor
An initiative organized around an interstate and targeting high-tech industry -- sound familiar?

by Julie S. Bettinger

With the early success of the I-4 high-tech corridor, other regions around the state are staking claim to their share of the good jobs and fast growth associated with technology firms. In southeast Florida, the I-95 corridor plan has received broad support, but funding has been elusive. Last year Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed legislation appropriating $500,000 in seed money. Now an initiative called the North Florida Technology Alliance (NFTA) is pushing for a high-tech alley along Interstate 10 in north Florida.

Started in November 1998, NFTA is a partnership between five state universities, private industry and local economic development groups. It includes counties off I-10 from Pensacola to Jacksonville and dips south to take in the University of Florida. "We're trying to link technology-based assets together," says Jerry Mallot, executive vice president, Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, and one of NFTA's three chairmen. "We have a lot of pieces of the high-tech puzzle."

Last year, NFTA's economic development organization members pooled money to create a $50,000 seed fund to cover initial administrative and marketing costs. Then, in its second phase, NFTA began soliciting the support of area businesses. Private sector partners include real estate developer St. Joe Co. and Manufacturing Technology, a Fort Walton-based avionics equipment company. The alliance now stands to receive half of the $1.5 million that State University System Chancellor Adam Herbert has earmarked in his 2000 budget for the NFTA and I-95 efforts.

What's different about NFTA's high-tech push? The region's three major military installations -- Pensacola's Naval Air Station, Fort Walton Beach's Eglin Air Force Base and Jacksonville's Naval Air Station -- provide a good "brain infrastructure," says Morris Marx, president of the University of West Florida in Pensacola. "People don't understand that what we have in this region has a whole lot of intellectual backbone to it." Marx is also a NFTA chairman.

Among the group's hurdles will be overcoming the region's rural image. Also, the I-4 corridor had a more defined industry core to build upon, says Jim Breitenfeld, senior vice president, Enterprise Florida. "It's hard to find a single common thread across north Florida," he says. "You can make an argument that Orlando and Tampa are linked. But it's going to be a challenge for people in Jacksonville to understand how something 300 miles away in Pensacola is going to benefit them."

Randy Berridge, president of the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, the formal name of the I-4 corridor, has heard all the arguments. "Then again," he says, "look at the corridor with Sarasota up to St. Pete, Tampa Bay, Polk, Metro Orlando and Volusia. It's not as long as I-10, but it's certainly as challenging."

In the News

Panhandle -- AT&T reversed its decision to do away with its toll-free directory assistance service. Call centers in Panama City, Chipley and Pensacola will remain operational, preserving 1,383 jobs in three counties -- Bay, Washington and Escambia.

Since Gov. Jeb Bush signed an order last November designating eight northwest Florida counties as a "rural area of critical economic concern," local leaders have been making a wish list matching area needs with state resources. Counties affected are Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington. Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Quincy, who sponsored legislation leading to the designation, hopes to set up a non-profit organization to serve as a clearinghouse for needs and resources.

Escambia -- The Institute for Human and Machine Cognition at the University of West Florida is conducting research with the U.S. Navy to redesign flight cockpit instrumentation. In place of dials, gauges and mental computations by the pilot, information is displayed as lines and dots and relayed to the pilot via tactile sensors. In combat, a physical sensation sent through the flight suit would alert the pilot to the location of the enemy.

Gulf County -- Florida Coast Paper mill in Port St. Joe is "closed forever." Owner Stone Container, a subsidiary of Smurfit-Stone, said it will not re-open the mill nor did it have plans to sell the facility. Meanwhile, Gulf County Shipbuilding Inc. is setting up shop on the Gulf County Canal, which intersects with the Intracoastal Waterway, in a move that will open up a two-mile stretch of land along the Intracoastal for other industries.

Milton -- The city is purchasing the old Vanity Fair apparel plant, which shut down last summer and shipped its jobs to Mexico. City officials say they have a new occupant for the 80,000-sq.-ft. facility: Internet travel agency Online Fulfillment Services plans to move in this spring and bring 500 to 700 jobs with pay exceeding the county average.

Okaloosa -- The Okaloosa County School Board approved a proposal by Okaloosa-Walton Community College to open a charter high school on its Niceville campus next fall. The first of its kind in Florida, students could earn an associate of arts or science degree while in high school.

Santa Rosa -- The Board of County Commissioners approved construction of a 20,000-sq.-ft. spec building -- expandable to 80,000 square feet -- on 11.9 acres in Santa Rosa Industrial Park. Construction is scheduled to begin this spring. Separately, Specialty Windows of Florida expects to relocate by April from Pensacola to the industrial park, where it will occupy a larger facility and create up to 200 new jobs.

Tallahassee -- The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is requesting renewed funding -- including a 50% increase over its last contract -- from the National Science Foundation. A decision is expected by late summer or early fall.

St. Joe Company has hired a new vice president for economic development, with primary responsibility to grow jobs in the Panhandle. Neal Wade, formerly president and CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, was nicknamed the "rainmaker" for his role in adding 43,000 jobs and 40 companies to the Alabama economy, including the biggest economic deals of the decade: Mercedes-Benz, Boeing and Honda. In his new position, Wade, 53, will collaborate with area economic development agencies to create strategies for promoting the region to prospective businesses.