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Northwest Florida Economic Indicators

Tourism and the military prove to be stabilizing factors in the Panhandle. Bay County area leaders continue to seek development opportunities around the new airport.

Florida's Nortwest Region

Pensacola/Escambia County

Pensacola has its first AA baseball team playing in a new waterfront park, and tourism is snapping back with 2011 bed-tax receipts up 27% from 2010. Pensacola leaders say the area could be past the worst of the recession and the fallout from the BP oil spill. Beaches are getting new visitors, a new hotel complex is rising, medical businesses appear healthy and a few manufacturers are hiring.

Still, 13,512 county residents were unemployed as of December, retail sales are flat, construction lags and new-home sales fell another 5% last year. "New-home sales are going to have to follow the economy; they won't be a leader," says Metro Market Trends Vice President Al Muller.

Businesses to Watch

» Navy Federal Credit Union: Last year, the credit union completed an $81.5-million building at its Pensacola regional office and added 466 employees for a total of 2,140; it expects to hire 450 more workers this year and is interested in purchasing an additional 240 acres for future expansion.

Navy FCU
The Navy Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in the U.S., added almost 500 workers last year in Pensacola and expects to hire an additional 450 this year. [Photo: Navy Federal Credit Union]

» IMS ExpertServices: The company, which provides expert witness searches and litigation consulting services, added a dozen employees in 2011 and could add 15 more in 2012.

» Custom Control Solutions: The manufacturer of industrial buildings and equipment is opening a second location and adding 15 employees. "We never experienced a slowdown," says owner Manfred Laner. "I deal with customers that went through the recession and never put the brakes on all the way."

» Sacred Heart Hospital: This month, the hospital launches a $57-million, two-phase project, mounting a five-story tower atop its existing three-story Heart and Vascular Institute building on its Pensacola campus, to add 112 beds and 150 jobs by completion in 2015-16.

People to Watch

» Quint Studer: The businessman, philanthropist and Pensacola Blue Wahoos baseball team owner has pledged to build a multimillion-dollar office building downtown, adjacent to the Community Maritime Park, for relocation of the Studer Group, the healthcare consulting business he founded. He and his wife, Rishy, are also renovating two long-vacant downtown buildings for commercial use.

» Julian MacQueen: The Innisfree Hotels CEO has launched construction of a Hyatt Place Hotel at the Pensacola airport, part of a $24-million, 11-acre project that will also include retail and office space.

» Judy Bense: The University of West Florida president is promoting a growth plan that incorporates new
academic and residential facilities, a new student center and arena, a hotel/conference center and restaurant/retail space and a football team and stadium.

Issues to Watch

» Jobs: "Escambia County needs to diversify our economic base with jobs that generate a head-of-household wage, not simply minimum wage jobs," says County Administrator Randy Oliver. "We also need to focus and build on the development of the intellectual capital that Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition has developed." Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward emphasizes downtown waterfront development as critical, a goal gaining prominence with completion of the Community Maritime Park, the revision of Pensacola port goals and relocation of the Main Street wastewater treatment plant.

Escambia Population: 301,527
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.39%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
18.10% 6.46% 28.05% 32.34% 15.05%
Per Capita Income: $38,486

MSA Dec. 2011 Dec. 2010 % Change Jobless Rate
Fort Walton/Crestview/Destin 90,268 86,669 +4.2% 7.1%
Panama City/Lynn Haven/Panama City Beach 79,499 78,826 +.9% 10.1%
Pensacola/Ferry Pass/Brent 186,954 188,170 -.6% 9.6%
Source: Agency for Workforce Innovation

Homes - Single-family, existing-home sales
MSA 2011 Sales 1-Year Change 2011 Price 1-Year Change
Fort Walton Beach 3,215 +17% $180,200 -4%
Panama City 1,364 +13% $142,300 -9%
Pensacola 3,916 +12% $134,600 -5%
Source: Florida Realtors; year-end sales, median price

Escambia County Consumer Bankruptcies
2010 2011 Change
1,108 895 -19.2%
Source: National Bankruptcy Research Center

Panama City/Bay County

John Wheat
A series of factors appears to favor Bay County's goals of building a stronger economy and lowering a year-end 10% unemployment rate. The county boasts the nation's first new international airport built in a decade, the $318-million Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, where traffic is running about 200% higher than at the airport it replaced, says Director John Wheat. New county economic development chief Neal Wade brings years of experience and plaudits for his track record in Alabama. The county has an abundance of developable property, says Wade, including St. Joe Co.'s VentureCrossings Enterprise Centre adjacent to the airport, with 1,000 commercial/industrial acres designated in the first phase — one of the largest available tracts in the Southeast for large-scale aviation projects.

Even St. Joe Co.'s revised strategy, crafted amid management transition and an earnings slump, could work in the county's favor. The company plans to focus on commercial real estate development, notably at the airport site.

Businesses to Watch

» ITT Exelis: The aerospace, defense and information solutions company will become the first tenant at VentureCrossings by year-end and will add 30 or more employees to its current 100 at Panama City in concert with the move and a recently announced $1.9-million Naval Sea Systems contract.

Bay Population: 172,941
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.99%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
18.39% 5.84% 26.14% 34.56% 15.07%
Per Capita Income: $39,225


Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa County

7th Special Forces Group
The 7th Special Forces Group has stepped up its presence in Okaloosa. [Photo: 7th Special Forces Group]

Okaloosa's economic mainstays, tourism and the military, fared well in 2011. Tourist-generated bed taxes were up 32% over 2010. The military presence is being ramped up by last year's arrival of some 2,200 7th Special Forces Group personnel, plus their families, and by the ongoing landings of the new F-35 fighters. Those factors contributed to stable employment and a relatively low unemployment rate.

Florida A&M's Crestview Education Center is scheduled to open in August, offering a pharmacy track and employing a staff of 15. Among startups at the county EDC's Combs campus Innovation Center at Fort Walton Beach are National Energy, a consulting firm led by former Air Force environmental scientist Dave Robau.

Pentagon budget-cutting is causing concern. "We're working to retain the Eglin mission, through our work with Eglin officials, our state representatives and our congressional delegation," says Larry Sassano, president of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County.

Businesses to Watch

» North Eastern Aeronautical: The Maryland-based manufacturer and service provider for unmanned aerial systems has opened a Niceville office, a strategic location near military bases Eglin, Tyndall and Naval Air Station.

Okaloosa Population: 183,816
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.28%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
18.56% 6.15% 27.25% 33.43% 14.62%
Per Capita Income: $44,190

Apalachicola/Franklin County

The recession put renewed emphasis on the oyster-centered economy of the late '80s and early '90s, a result of the downturn in the real estate market. "There's some concern about overharvesting," but overall the economy has seen bottom, says Alan Pierce, county planner and director of administrative services. "Definitely an uptick" in tourism, notes Anita Grove, executive director of Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Franklin Population: 11,885
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.86%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
14.96% 4.22% 27.41% 34.90% 18.50%
Per Capita Income: $32,598


Walton County

Walton County's tourism sector posted a 29.5% gain in 2011, a year featuring the opening of the Bayou Arts Center, a venue for exhibits and workshops, and improved public access to the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center that was aided by partnering with the South Walton Tourist Development Council. Housing demand has benefited from the arrival of the 7th Special Forces Group in neighboring Okaloosa County. Real estate development, however, could slow as St. Joe Co. plans to reduce spending at
WaterSound and WaterColor.


Holmes/ Washington Counties

Expansion of the Bonifay plant of the LKQ auto aftermarket company was good news for Holmes County; many residents, however, continue to commute to jobs outside the county. In Washington County, businesses are struggling and building permits are at an all-time low, reports Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ted Everett. While voters approved slot machines at Ebro Greyhound Park, the measure still must get state approval.

Holmes Population: 20,234
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.12%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
17.44% 6.21% 24.36% 34.06% 17.93%
Per Capita Income: $30,116

Washington Population: 25,204
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.50%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
17.41% 5.84% 25.58% 35.27% 15.89%
Per Capita Income: $25,544


Calhoun/Liberty/Jackson Counties

The slump in home building impacted construction-related timber industries in Calhoun and Liberty counties. At Big River Cypress & Hardwood in Blountstown, orders decreased and employment dropped from 50 pre-recession to the current 35, says manager Harry Rogers. Calhoun County's real estate industry, meanwhile, is showing some signs of improvement, says Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kristy Terry. Also a jobs concern: "Talk of area prisons closing haunts us," Terry says.
The city of Marianna in Jackson County is taking steps to ensure last-mile hookup for high-speed internet, says Opportunity Florida Executive Director Rick Marcum. Completion of the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance project, scheduled for mid-2013, will be a major economic boon.

Calhoun Population: 14,731
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.66%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
18.44% 5.40% 25.85% 34.25% 16.05%
Per Capita Income: $25,004

Liberty Population: 8,828
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 1.48%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
17.47% 5.80% 30.11% 35.15% 11.48%
Per Capita Income: $24,906

Jackson Population: 50,314
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.02%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
16.33% 5.78% 26.34% 35.19% 16.36%
Per Capita Income: $29,925

Santa Rosa County

Two call centers closed last year, taking 500 jobs. The moves contributed to the county's decision to restructure its economic development organization, establishing a closer partnership with Pensacola's Chamber of Commerce-led economic development program. Among positives that County Commissioner Don Salter noted are the presence of strong technology firms Avalex Technologies and AppRiver and interest from two companies considering relocating to the county.

Santa Rosa Population: 161,588
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 2.13%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
19.12% 6.81% 24.61% 35.77% 13.69%
Per Capita Income: $36,573


Gulf County

Port St. Joe
Gulf County is working on redeveloping the port at Port St. Joe. [Photo: Port St. Joe Port Authority]

The economy is making a comeback, says Port St. Joe City Clerk Jim Anderson. Among projects under way: Redevelopment of the port at Port St. Joe and a cultural initiative to revitalize and reopen the historic, 1938-constructed Port Theater. Last year's tourism-generated bed taxes were up 14.8% from 2010 and were the highest ever, says Visit Gulf office manager Crystal Follin.

The biggest setback last year was the decision of Colorado-based Rentech to cancel its proposed $225-million project to build a 55-megawatt woody biomass energy plant at Port St. Joe, which would have added 85 jobs.

Gulf Population: 16,012
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.25%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
12.92% 4.72% 27.55% 37.82% 16.99%
Per Capita Income: $28,079