Northwest Florida is a favorite visitor destination for its sugar white beaches, natural springs and abundant pine forests. But along with a thriving tourism economy — that in 2011 generated revenue increases averaging close to 25% across many counties — Florida’s Panhandle is home to a strong aviation/defense sector and is becoming the site for solar energy R&D.
Businesses here enjoy proximity to key southeastern markets via interconnected highways, railroads and shipping lines. In fact, connections from this region to middle America are such that, in 2011, international shipping giant UPS moved its central Gulf Coast regional sorting operation from Alabama to Pensacola.
Improvements are under way at all three of the region’s deepwater ports; Port of Pensacola is looking to attract more of the high-tech vessels that service offshore oil and gas drilling rigs. Traffic at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (the nation’s first new international airport in a decade) is about 200% higher than at the airport it replaced, and tenants are moving in to nearby VentureCrossings, where 1,000 acres are available for large-scale aviation projects.
WHO LIVES HERE
43,000-plus well-trained military personnel on active duty at six Air Force and Navy installations. In addition, an estimated 7,750 personnel retire from military service here each year. Typically younger than civilian retirees, military retirees often seek a second career, bringing their advanced technical skills and highly desired industry credentials to employers.
60,000-plus students in the region’s eight colleges and universities, including Florida State University, Florida A&M University and the University of West Florida.
Moving.com, a leading source for moving-related services, ranked Florida’s capital city — Tallahassee — No. 2 on its 2012 list of “America’s Most Millennial Friendly Cities,” citing affordable housing and proximity to FSU as especially appealing for Generation Y’ers looking to relocate.
In Tallahassee, where the share of the workforce with college degrees is almost double the national average, startups find encouragement through resources like the Entrepreneurial Excellence Program sponsored by the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee/Leon County. This four-week course linking aspiring entrepreneurs with seasoned business pros covers such topics as financing, marketing, ethics and everyday operations.
• The Boeing Company - Eglin Air Force Base
• DeTect Inc. - Panama City
• DRS Technologies - Fort Walton Beach
• Coast Water Efficient Technology (Coast WET) - Panama City
• Majestic Candies Company - Pensacola
• Mowrey Elevator Company Inc. - Marianna
Renewable Energy and Environment
• Bing Energy - Tallahassee
• GE - Pensacola
• Green Circle Bio Energy Inc. - Cottondale
Research and Development
• Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion - Tallahassee
• Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition - Pensacola
• High-Performance Materials Institute - Tallahassee
For the launch of its Made in the USA brand of home textiles, furniture and lighting, Atlanta-based Home Source International will establish a manufacturing and distribution facility in Marianna by the end of 2012 with a capital investment of $2.3 million; 303 new jobs are expected.
Eastern Shipbuilding Group of Panama City plans to hire up to 500 employees and invest $17 million in new equipment over the next 16 months to meet the demands of two new contracts to build 13 offshore supply vessels.
Navy Federal Credit Union, America’s largest credit union, completed an $81.5-million expansion at its Pensacola office in 2011, adding 466 employees to an existing staff of 1,650.
National Solar Power (NSP) plans to build the Southeast’s largest solar energy farm in Gadsden County. When completed in approximately five years, the $1.5-billion, 400-megawatt project will power 32,000 homes. NSP plans a second, smaller solar farm in adjacent Liberty County.
Research & Development
A $2.5-million “split magnet” system now operational at The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University is 43% more powerful than the previous record-holding magnet and will be used for optics, nanoscience and semiconductor research.
The military accounts for 35% of gross regional output (47% in Okaloosa County, home to Eglin AFB). Approximately 179,000 jobs in the region depend in part on Department of Defense spending, including those at 500-plus private-sector companies. Recent activity:
• Maryland-based North Eastern Aeronautical, manufacturer of unmanned aerial systems, has opened an office in Niceville to be near Eglin and Tyndall Air Force Bases.
• Avalex Technologies, manufacturer of airborne surveillance systems, has moved into a new $10-million, 53,000-sq.-ft. headquarters in Gulf Breeze.
• The National Flight Academy, a $35-million STEM-focused educational institution in Pensacola, teaches science, technology, math and engineering skills to middle- and high-school students by immersing them in real-life aviation-related role-playing scenarios.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Ready to play?
Northwest Florida’s superb climate lends itself to year-round golfing, fishing and boating; its Gulf Coast beaches are consistently ranked among the world’s best. For sports enthusiasts, Pensacola has its first AA baseball team — the Blue Wahoos — and a new 5,000-seat ballpark on the downtown waterfront where an amphitheater, new hotels and office buildings, walkways and gardens are also planned.
Head to Gretna where the Porach Band of Creek Indians has opened a $20-million entertainment center featuring a poker room and barrel racing with the five-year goal of building a complete resort casino, including hotels, equestrian center, quarter-horse racing and 2,000 slot machines.