by Matt Moore
Updated 4 yearss ago
Local economic development officials don't want just any tenant for a soon-vacant engine plant.
Along Pensacola's Scenic Highway on the edge of town sits a big, empty building. Nearly 400,000 square feet of combined manufacturing and office space will be vacant by the end of September as Westinghouse's Pensacola turbine engine plant closes its doors. Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse had employed nearly 650 workers here building turbines and nuclear steam generators. But the contract stream went dry, staffing fell by more than two-thirds and the company has decided to shutter the plant.
The Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce and Gulf Power Co., the local utility, are working together to find a buyer. They're not interested, they say, in taking the first offer that promises a few jobs. Instead, they want to find a big technology firm that would help attract other companies.
Home builders, some of whom have expressed interest in developing the bayfront property, need not apply, say chamber officials. Mike Frey, the chamber's vice president for economic development, sees the soon-to-be vacant plant as a way to boost the county's high-tech profile and compete with high-tech growth in nearby Fort Walton Beach. With Pensacola's proximity to the Naval Air Station and associated aerospace and technology companies, making the plant a technology manufacturing center makes sense to Frey.
The chamber does not expect the property to draw much interest from information technology companies, chipbuilders or software designers. Such companies "are not going to try and adapt an existing building," Frey says. "Their needs are too unique and changing." Instead, he says, the building needs a buyer or tenant like an aerospace firm or energy company that can make use of two 450-ton cranes and massive amounts of electricity. The plant has "enough juice to light up Las Vegas," he says. "The perfect user might be someone building a submarine" -- which the plant has done in its 30-year history.
Bob Cordes, who heads up economic development for Gulf Power, agrees. He says the building is big enough to accommodate just about any type of technology project. And with a state-of-the-art telecommunications system already in place, the building could make a high-tech manufacturer very happy, according to Cordes.
Ted Clem, the chamber's director of business development, says the presence of technology-oriented workers in Pensacola, both civilian and those in the Navy, is a strong draw for the right industry. But the right industry may be hard to find, says Richard Hawkins of the Haas Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of West Florida. "Planning economic growth on new manufacturing activity," he says, "is akin to planning your retirement on the lottery."
In the News
Bay County - Shipbuilder Halter Marine Group closed its shipyard in Allenton now that oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico has slowed. The decision came just a little more than a year after Halter reopened the long-dormant yard. Nearly 200 workers lost their jobs, but some were hired by cross-county rival Eastern Shipbuilding Group.
Century - Alger-Sullivan spent more than $20 million to renovate and refurbish its saw mill, closed since the early 1970s. The mill, one of the city's first businesses, will open later this summer, employ 75 workers, and nearly double the city's tax base.
Gulf County - Business and county leaders are willing to offer Atlanta-based TeleMed Inc. three years rent-free in the Wewahitchka Industrial Park if the company will locate a new call center there. The deal, the first of its kind in county history, hinges upon the company creating at least 80 fulltime jobs and a pledge to hire workers left in dire straits with the closing of the Florida Coast Paper Co. mill (Florida Trend, May 1999) The company is considering a site in Virginia, too.
Milton - Vanity Fair Mills closed its apparel plant, leaving nearly 540 people out of work. The company cited increased production costs and competition from overseas companies with cheaper labor.
Panama City - Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.'s paper mill agreed to pay more than $50 million in the next two years to comply with federal environmental regulations. The costs will be passed along to buyers of the mill's paper products.
Pensacola - The National Museum of Naval Aviation will spend $25 million for a 200,000-sq.-ft. addition to its now-291,000-sq.-ft. facility. New features will include a flight academy for children, similar to the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.
Port St. Joe - Third time is the charm. Voters approved a measure that gives the city council the power to waive ad valorem taxes in its efforts to recruit new industry. The referendum, approved by a nearly 2-1 margin, had been voted down twice.
Santa Rosa County - After nine years and $95 million, as well as some last-minute wrangling with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the 3.5-mile long Garcon Point Bridge connecting the north end of the county with the south opened in May. The bridge is expected to spark residential and retail development on both sides and give commuters to Pensacola a quicker route.
Tallahassee - St. Joe Co./Arvida agreed to build Leon County's largest spec building. The 50,000-sq.-ft. structure will go up next year in Innovation Park, home to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. City officials hope it will lure new tenants.
Northwest Florida's three deepwater ports - Pensacola, Panama City and Port St. Joe - are pledging to form a regional alliance that would give them more resources to compete with other gulf ports. A measure to create a Northwest Florida Seaport and Economic Development Council died in the legislative session. State Rep. Dee Dee Ritchie, D-Pensacola, says she'll bring the bill back next year. In the meantime, the three ports will move forward on their own, pursuing their goal to be prepared for trade with post-Castro Cuba.
... Water wars in Walton and Okaloosa counties may have been settled when a judge ruled that two water utilities in Destin could indeed get more water from Freeport, despite a law that forbids the transfer of water across county lines. Freeport's attorney, Clayton Adkinson, says an appeal is likely and adds that Freeport's water should stay in Freeport and Walton County.
... Gulf and Franklin counties, at odds over dredging of the Apalachicola River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are feuding like cousins at a family reunion. Gulf officials blasted the corps for damaging the river's ecosystem. Leaders in Franklin say the dredging will mean pleasure boaters, fishermen and shrimpers can get in and out of the Gulf of Mexico more easily. The corps has the permits to do the work, but environmentalists contend the dredging is turning the upland river into a channel.