There’s a lot to like about Florida’s Northwest, especially if you’re looking for the right place to site a business. This region offers plenty of room to grow and a ready pool of highly proficient workers — many of whom honed their skills in the military and, at retirement, elected to join one of the many aviation, technology and logistics firms clustered here. And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, consider this: Northwest Florida is just a darn pretty place to live. Imagine gazing out on a 150-mile stretch of uninterrupted sugar white sand along the bright blue Gulf of Mexico every day. Would you really want to live and work somewhere else?
Aviation and Defense
Florida’s Northwest is home to eight military installations, including NAS Pensacola, NAS Whiting Field, Hurlburt Field, Eglin AFB and Tyndall AFB, which together account for some 56,000 military and civilian jobs. Adding to these are the many thousands more jobs generated by privately owned aerospace manufacturers, aircraft maintenance firms and defense contractors that have also chosen to cluster here.
Anticipated developments in this industry sector include:
• Continuing construction on ST Engineering’s aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities at Pensacola International Airport. The 177,000-sq.-ft. Hangar 2 is due for completion in September 2022 with hangars 3 and 4 to follow by June 2024.
• Delivery of 31 TH-73A helicopters by Leonardo Helicopters US to Naval Air Station Whiting Field before the end of 2021 as part of its commitment to replace the Navy’s aging helicopter fleet over four years. Plans call for Leonardo to move its headquarters and support center to Whiting Aviation Park over the next few years.
KEY PLAYERS: BAE Systems, Famborough, U.K.; The Boeing Company, Chicago, Ill.; Leonardo Helicopters US, Philadelphia, Pa.; ST Engineering, Singapore
Logistics and Distribution
One of the best reasons for choosing a site in Florida’s Northwest is its shape — a panhandle 200 miles long and 50 to 100 miles wide with Alabama and Georgia easily accessible to the north, the Gulf of Mexico to the south and four commercial airports in between. And with I-10 bisecting the region from east to west, connections to I-65, I-75 and I-95 as well as Class 1 CSX and Norfolk Southern are within easy reach.
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, Northwest Florida’s maritime ports continue to grow. At Port Panama City, revenue is up by 8%, mostly due to robust growth in exports of wood pellets manufactured in Cottondale by Maryland-based Enviva Partners; talks are underway to expand the current contract. And at the Port of Pensacola, total tonnage has increased by 110.6% over the last 12 months, while the number of vessels docking is up 47.5%. Here too, work continues on the conversion of a freighter from cargo ship to landing platform for Blue Origin’s “returnable” rocket boosters.
Distribution facilities are beginning to cluster here too:
• Birmingham, Ala.-based Coca-Cola United, the third largest bottler of Coca-Cola products in the U.S., will site a 24,000-sq.-ft. sales and distribution facility in Panama City with 80 employees anticipated.
• Amazon plans to locate two new facilities in Florida’s Northwest: a 630,000-sq.-ft. robotics distribution and fulfillment center in Leon County and a last-mile delivery site in Marianna.
• Veteran-owned pharmaceutical and medical device company Lovell Government Services plans to build a 100,000-sq.-ft. distribution facility in the Santa Rosa County Industrial Park.
KEY PLAYERS: Eastern Shipbuilding, Panama City; FedEx Ground, Defuniak Springs; Goldring Gulf Distributing, Milton
Two manufacturing firms in Florida’s Northwest are growing to meet increased demand due to the coronavirus pandemic:
• Catalyst Fabric Solutions, maker of bed furnishings, towels and other home décor items, has added 125 jobs in Marianna after receiving FDA certification to produce isolation gowns for health care workers.
• American Elite Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is manufacturing “melt blown polypropylene,” the critical filter medium used in medical grade face masks and gowns, at its newly opened 14,000-sq.-ft. facility in Fort Walton Beach.
Also in this sector: Danfoss Turbocor, maker of oil-free, energy-efficient centrifugal compressors for air-conditioning, heating and refrigeration systems, is adding up to 90,000-sq.-ft. and more than 235 new manufacturing and research jobs at its Tallahassee plant.
KEY PLAYERS: American Elite Molding, Crestview; Danfoss Turbocor, Tallahassee; GE Oil & Gas, Pensacola
Technology & Innovation
Northwest Florida continues to grow its reputation as a leader in cybersecurity research, workforce education and professional training.
At the forefront of this effort is the University of West Florida, which in addition to offering cybersecurity degree programs and certificates across multiple disciplines is designated by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security as the “Southeast Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity Regional Hub.”
In October 2020, UWF received a $6-million grant from the U.S. National Security Agency to lead 10 institutions designated as National Centers of Excellence in Cybersecurity to address the critical nationwide shortage of qualified cybersecurity professionals. The UWF-led team, which includes Florida International University and the University of South Florida, focuses specifically on recruiting, preparing and placing former military and first responders into cybersecurity positions in critical infrastructure sectors, as well as personnel from the financial services, defense and energy sectors.
Elsewhere in the region:
• Florida State University has broken ground near Innovation Park on its 116,000-sq.-ft. Interdisciplinary Research and Commercialization Building, which aims to move the field of material sciences forward as researchers from chemistry, physics, engineering and other scientific disciplines work together to create and advance new materials. Estimated opening: 2024.
• A team of 19 engineering students from Escambia High School in Pensacola captured NASA’s prestigious “Neil Armstrong Best Design Award 2020” for their construction of a compact, lightweight, two-person rover. The annual competition, which typically takes place on the punishing Rover Challenge course at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., was held virtually this year and drew 111 teams from 27 states and 11 countries.
KEY PLAYERS: AppRiver, Gulf Breeze; Bit-Wizards, Fort Walton Beach; Digital Boardwalk, Pensacola; Inspired Technologies, Tallahassee
Florida’s largest utility — Florida Power & Light Co. — is expanding solar energy production in Northwest Florida. Along with its partner, Pensacola-based Gulf Power, FPL plans eight solar sites across the region.
Blue Indigo Solar Energy Center began operations in Jackson County on April 1, 2020, and coming at the end of 2021 are Cotton Creek Energy Center in Escambia County and Blue Springs Solar Energy Center in Jackson County. Still in the very early stages of development are: Chipola River Solar Center and Flowers Creek Solar Center in Calhoun; First Solar Center in Escambia; Apalachee Solar Center in Jackson; and Blackwater River Solar Center in Santa Rosa.
Duke Energy, which serves eight counties in Northwest Florida, plans to build its Bay Ranch Solar Power Plant on 654 acres in Bay County. Estimated completion: December 2022.
KEY PLAYERS: Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C.; Florida Power & Light Co., Juno Beach; Gulf Power, Pensacola
Northwest Florida is home to three of Florida’s 12 public universities, and they all secured a ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges 2022”: University of West Florida, No. 36; Florida State University, No. 58; and Florida A&M, No. 241. In addition, Florida A&M was ranked No. 3 among the nation’s top “Historically Black Colleges” by Niche in 2022, and Florida State was named No. 11 “Best Value College 2021” by The Princeton Review.
Across the region, state colleges were busy adding new facilities and programs:
• Pensacola State College opened its Baars Technology Building in April 2021. The 23,839-sq.-ft. facility is home to PSC’s STEM programs including cybersecurity, mathematics and computer science.
• Northwest Florida State College has received $7 million from Triumph Gulf Coast to fund its Aviation Center of Excellence. Over the next decade, the college estimates it will graduate more than 300 FAA-certified airframe technicians and more than 120 pilots.
Easy access to quality health care is more important than ever these days, and in Florida’s Northwest, health care systems are growing in size and capability to better provide it.
Construction is underway on Baptist Health Care’s new $615-million hospital campus in Pensacola. The largest single investment in a life sciences facility in Northwest Florida history, the development will consist of three primary structures: a 602,000-sq.-ft. acute care hospital; a 178,000-sq.-ft. medical office building for outpatient services; and a 90-bed behavioral unit for adults and children/youth needing inpatient care.
Ascension Sacred Heart’s $85-million, 126-bed Studer Family Children’s Hospital in Pensacola continues to grow with a pediatric intensive care unit that includes an operating room designed specifically for pediatric surgeries, and the Bear Family Foundation Pediatric Oncology Center for Hope. Ascension’s Studer Family Children’s Hospital is the only dedicated children’s hospital in Northwest Florida.
Construction has begun on a $30-million health center in central Bay County. Developed by PanCare of Florida, the project is expected to serve several thousand uninsured Northwest Florida residents with conditions pertaining to gastroenterology, cardiology, radiology and ophthalmology. The medical complex will offer gynecology and mammography services, a pharmacy and a laboratory and will serve as a special needs shelter in emergencies.
Fort Walton Beach Medical Center in Okaloosa County has advanced cardiac care in Northwest Florida with the successful completion of two transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) patient procedures. TAVR surgery replaces a narrowed aortic valve that fails to open fully, a condition known as aortic valve stenosis which limits blood flow. Unlike past procedures which required open-heart surgery to repair an aortic valve, TAVR typically takes about two hours, and most patients can go home the next day. FWBMC is the first health care facility in the three-county central Gulf Coast region to offer the TAVR procedure.
Life & Leisure
Come Live Where Life’s a Beach
… and you’ll find three of the best on barrier islands at state parks in Florida’s Northwest. Moving along the panhandle from west to east, check out Henderson Beach State Park in Okaloosa County, No. 13 on Trip Advisor’s 2021 list of top U.S. beaches; Grayton Beach State Park in Walton County, 2020’s No. 1 choice by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman (aka Dr. Beach); and St. George Island State Park, another Dr. Leatherman pick at No. 4 in 2021. All three boast crystal-clear water and sugary white sand by day, and by night, spectacular views of Jupiter, Saturn and, if you’re lucky, the International Space Station making its orbit around Earth.
So Much to See and Do
Venture a few miles inland and you’ll find dozens of small towns to explore, many of which boast tongue-twisting names like Miccosukee, Wacissa and Sopchoppy. Florida’s capital city — Tallahassee — is here too, along with Pensacola, known as “The City of Five Flags” for having changed ownership so many times over the years. Today, it’s a bustling city, home to the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron — better known as the Blue Angels — and museums devoted to art, history, industry and commerce. There’s plenty of natural beauty all across this interior region, too — winding rivers, pine forests, crystal clear springs and lots of caverns — most of which are underwater.