February 25, 2024

Economic Yearbook 2008

BIG BEND: Upgrading

Charlotte Crane | 4/1/2008

Big Bend Region of Florida

Transportation improvements, water and sewer system extensions in rural counties and access to better healthcare are big issues for leaders across the Big Bend region — and are recognized as key to meeting the No. 1 need:

Beth Kirkland
College Pipeline (Tallahassee)
Beth Kirkland

» Tallahassee needs “programs at the community college and university level to provide that pipeline of workers for the existing and growth sectors we’re involved with, like biotech, alternative energy, advanced manufacturing and aviation," says Economic Development Council Executive Director Beth Kirkland. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
“We have a desperate need for quality jobs," says Rick Breer, director of economic development in Taylor County, where last year’s three anticipated economic megaboosters — an advanced-technology coal-fired power plant, a downtown redevelopment project and a multimillion waterfront plan — are either canceled, delayed or looking tenuous.

Numerous rural communities are handicapped by a lack of infrastructure to attract business. In Madison County — which lost 475 jobs when Smithfield Packing closed in late 2006 — the county spent $8 million putting water and sewer at three interchanges along Interstate 10, a project that’s already netted two travel-stop businesses. “They wouldn’t have built without water and sewage being available," says county coordinator Allen Cherry.

What Tallahassee needs most is workforce training, says Economic Development Council Executive Director Beth Kirkland — “programs at the community college and university level to provide that pipeline of workers for the existing and growth sectors we’re involved with, like biotech, alternative energy, advanced manufacturing and aviation." While Florida’s capital city feels the economic slowdown less severely than the rest of the region — Tallahassee metro area unemployment rate in January was a low 3.3% — it hasn’t escaped the housing crunch. Leon County residential building permits issued last year, at 1,113, were the fewest since 1985.

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Three Big Bend counties last year grew by percentages larger than the state’s gain: Wakulla, up 5%; Columbia, 4.1%; and Gilchrist, 2.3%. Still, because of the small size of the region’s 11 counties, overall growth added only 7,523 residents. Leon is the only county with more than 70,000 people; five counties each have fewer than 20,000 residents. While no counties lost population, only five had a growth rate exceeding their most-recent five-year average. Minuscule in-migration and the slowing economy are reflected in home sales, down 22% across the region. Home sales declined more than 30% in Columbia, Suwannee and Taylor counties.

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