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Blountstown

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Local investor Michael Siavage reopened the Tysco Shipyard, which had been idle for the last 15 years. His company, New Rysco Shipyard, will build river and ocean-going barges and vessels. New Rysco will hire 100 shipyard workers, welders and shipfitters within the next year. A revival in the oil and gas industry has created a need for new barges.

Lynn Haven

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Merrick Industries will delay its previously announced 22,000-square-foot, 100-employee expansion until the end of the summer. Merrick designs and manufactures dynamic weighing equipment and scales.

Panama City

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Arizona Chemical will cut 57 positions at its chemical products facility, which employs 200. Arizona also is looking to build a new international headquarters in Pensacola.

West Florida Gas of Panama City was bought by Tampa-based TECO Energy for $21 million. TECO (NYSE-TE) will merge the gas company into Peoples Gas, which TECO recently bought from Lykes Energy. The purchase will add 30,000 customers in Ocala and the Panhandle to Peoples' 200,000 customers.

Pensacola

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The University of West Florida's School of Communication Arts beat out 14 other schools, including UCLA and Penn State, to win the national Student Advertising Competition for the second year in a row and third time overall.

St. Marks

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Resident Bobby Guimbellot's bid to bring a floating casino to rural St. Marks has been delayed. The coastal town has no police force and is afraid it couldn't handle the influx of people. It is awaiting recommendations from the state's Department of Community Affairs.

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TECHNOLOGY

Cellular Towers Are...

... being rejected across the country by communities calling them giant eyesores, but residents of the tiny Santa Rosa County town of Milton are actually pining for them. Cellular companies pay top dollar to residents and local governments to rent space. So, since Mobile, Ala.-based cellular service provider DigiPH said it wanted to build a 250-foot tower in Milton, residents have been competing for the business. "Yeah the towers are unsightly, but at $3,000 a year for 19 years ($57,000) everyone wants it," says one Milton resident. "Neighbors are rejecting towers in their neighbors' yards because they didn't get it themselves. It's awful." Saying it needed more time to study the issue, the Santa Rosa County Commission has delayed its approval. DigiPH hopes to erect four antennas in Santa Rosa County and about 45 in its four-county Panhandle block by the fall. Cellular prices have dropped 50% or more over the past 10 years, and the cellular industry has grown by more than 134% a year since 1993. Since the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the industry in 1996, dividing the U.S. into more than 1,200 competitive blocks and allowing up to six companies to compete in each region, cellular companies have scrambled to get infrastructure in place. Mostly, that means placing cellular antennas, which handle up to 100 calls at a time, every quarter- mile up to 10 miles, depending on traffic and the technology used. By passing zoning laws limiting cellular towers and antennas to public areas such as parks, local governments also are getting into the profitable leasing buisness.

- Brian Hires

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Tallahassee

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Florida could drop its competitive bidding of Medicaid contracts to HMOs. The state has faced 12 legal challenges by HMOs unhappy with the competitive bidding process, which began in 1996 as a key part of a plan to save taxpayers up to $58 million. Unless a judge intervenes, the contracts will be replaced with the more expensive previous HMO contracts.

Effective the end of 1997, Unisys will no longer process health claims for 215,000 state employees and their families. Unisys and state officials agreed to end the deal, valued at $86 million over eight years. Unisys had no experience processing state employee health claims, yet in January it beat out Blue Cross & Blue Shield, which had almost 20 years of experience.