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Northwest Florida - Brimming with Possibilities

Dr. Kenneth Ford is founder/director of the award-winning Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. [Photo: Ray Stanyard]

The cultural landscape of the 16-county Northwest region manages to retain its color and charm while the region also earns top-gun rankings in defense and aerospace, educational leadership and white-sands tourism. Northwest Florida is home to the U.S. Air Force’s largest air base and the only high-magnetic field laboratory in the Western Hemisphere, not to mention luxury resorts and progressive new-town communities.

Until the late 1990s, timber, fishing and textiles ruled the economy here; today’s core businesses are retail, construction and tourism. And the strongest gains are in aerospace, information technology, biomedicine, international commerce and alternative energy.

Helping growth happen in this region is an ample stock of logistical essentials: interstate highways, cross-regional and short-line rail, and four regional airports, plus two deepwater ports and a third undergoing redevelopment.

Panama City/ Bay County

Ready for Takeoff

Panama City-Bay County’s new super-sized airport is poised for takeoff; construction is slated to begin in late 2007. The $331-million international airport will be located at West Bay on 4,000 acres donated by Florida’s largest private landowner, The St. Joe Company. Plans for residential, industrial and commercial development adjacent to the airport promise to add business, jobs and tax benefits, according to airport authority chairman Joe Tannehill.

Traffic at Port Panama City logged a 57% gain in 2006. Beginning in 2008, the port will be handling some 300,000 tons per year of compressed wood pellets bound for Europe from Green Circle Bio Energy Inc.

Panama City Beach, a perennial favorite for vacationers, continues to attract new resorts. The latest is Splash, a luxury condominium resort by The Sterling Companies that has been named one of this year’s hot new beach resorts by Florida Travel & Life.

Making military connections

When EDO Corporation made a strategic decision in 2005 to open a mine warfare center, the New York City company opted to locate the facility in Panama City close to its customer, the U.S. Navy. The center designs and delivers undersea systems for mine warfare and littoral combat ship systems. Employment, which stood at 105 midyear, is expected to grow by 15 to 20 before the end of 2007, says Director of Operations Matt Miller: “The Florida lifestyle and climate — it’s what we offer our employees, 20% of whom are from out-of-state. I think this is the best place to live in the world.”

Jackson County

Strategic Movement

Wood pellets

Jackson County’s economic development strategy is helping to create a logistics and distribution corridor along Interstate 10, where a distribution park, construction services park and intermodal park have been built at strategic interchanges.

New uses for old products

Swedish-owned Green Circle Bio Energy Inc. is helping to both revitalize an aging industry — timber — and launch a new one — alternative energy — with construction of the world’s largest wood pellet plant at Cottondale. The $100-million project will convert waste wood to “green” fuel. Destination: European power plants via nearby Port Panama City.

Jefferson & Wakulla Counties

Outdoor Paradise

  • Jefferson County is seeing rapid subdivision development, with some 445 new home sites made available in the past year. “We’re what’s left of country living,” says Ray Cichon, editor of the Monticello News. But also: “We’re creeping closer to Tallahassee, in terms of business development along the way.”
  • Wakulla County, long known as an outdoor lover’s paradise, is home to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, world-famed Wakulla Springs and St. Marks Lighthouse. A “Green Guide” program provides visitors with certified nature-based tour guides, trained in a 90-hour course at the Wakulla Center of Tallahassee Community College.

Calhoun & Gadsden Counties

Careful Planning

Sky, a 571-acre community being planned for Calhoun County, could become a national model for energy efficiency and environmental compatibility. The 10-year project of White Starr Inc. will launch in 2008, aided by a $1.8-million state grant. Sky’s 624 homes will be clustered in Old World-style villages incorporating geothermal loops and solar energy systems.

2007 marks the completion of the 3.9-mile Blountstown Greenway Bike Path in Calhoun County — now part of the Florida National Scenic Trail— stretching from the Apalachicola River through Blountstown.

Historically significant Gadsden County, important today for its thriving plant nurseries and agricultural research, also provides residential areas and business sites for neighboring Leon County.

Tallahassee/ Leon County

Streamlining Patient Care

An innovative Tallahassee company operated by medical and technology leaders, Avocare has developed the Automated Medication Dispenser, a robotic vault the size of a vending machine that makes prescription-filling quicker and easier. The company also operates the Regional Health Information Network, enabling healthcare providers to conveniently share patient data. “Florida is among leaders in the nation in interest in disseminating healthcare information,” says Vice President of Operations Zach Finn. “By being in Florida, we were able to pursue that avenue.’’

A Research Powerhouse

The largest provider of higher education in the region, Florida State University offers programs to 40,000 students. FSU also houses exceptional research facilities that include the Center of Excellence in Advanced Materials, the Center for Biomedical and Toxicological Research, the Center for Nanomagnetics and Biotechnology and the Institute for Molecular Biophysics. In the “Milken Institute’s Mind to Market: A Global Analysis of University Biotechnology Transfer and Commercialization,” FSU ranked 1st in the nation for licensing income per $million in research expenditures.

In the News

Florida’s capital city often makes headlines, but instead of politics, today’s news is focused on innovative “green power” developments, recognition as a top business destination and growing manufacturing sectors.

  • Biomass Gas & Electric Company plans construction of a $90-million plant to convert wood waste to electricity and a natural gas substitute, making Tallahassee the first U.S. municipality to generate electricity using advanced gasification biomass technology.
  • Tallahassee was named one of “America’s 50 Hottest Cities” for business relocation and expansion by Expansion Management magazine.
  • Flightline Group broke ground recently for a new, 24,000-square-foot aviation technical service center at its corporate headquarters at Tallahassee Regional Airport. Flightline is a regional distributor for Piper aircraft and recently was awarded a 23-state HondaJet dealership.

Franklin & Liberty County

Staying Green

Franklin County’s city of Carrabelle is partnering with developer Lawton “Bud’’ Chiles of Tallahassee and New Hampshire manufacturer Tony Attalla to launch an innovative factory aimed at manufacturing affordable, environmentally friendly and hurricane-proof housing for Gulf Coast residents. At peak production, GreenSteel Homes will provide some 350 jobs.

Liberty County, Florida’s smallest county by population, is also one of its fastest-growing, mainly due to new residents opting for a rural environment and the pristine beauty of the Apalachicola National Forest.

Holmes & Washington Counties

New Hospital Coming Soon

Holmes County officials are celebrating construction startup of a new hospital. The $17-million, 20-bed replacement for the existing Doctors Memorial Hospital at Bonifay is slated for completion in early 2008.

In Washington County, Sunny Hills, a 17,000-acre master-planned community dating back to the 1990s, is beginning to realize a major uptick in sales and home site development, says manager Jane Huth. TIP Landholding LLC of Orlando recently purchased 3,785 acres (7,161 lots) with plans for residential development. With a population estimated around 2,000 residents, but an original design encompassing 70,000, Sunny Hills has room to grow.

Gulf County

Looking Ahead

Gulf and Franklin counties will be jointly served by Sacred Heart Health System’s new, $30-million, 25-bed hospital at Port St. Joe slated for completion in 2009 on a site donated by The St. Joe Company.

With some 800,000 acres of land at its disposal, most of which is located in northwest Florida, The St. Joe Company is moving ahead with several projects in Gulf County, including WindMark Beach resort, improvements to the Port St. Joe marina and bayfront park and creation of a Port St. Joe town center.

A stopping point for seagoing vessels since 1703, Port St. Joe also will soon have a new deepwater port.

Fort Walton Beach/ Okaloosa County

Military Roots

Eglin Air Force Base anchors a strong military presence in Okaloosa County.

Okaloosa is home to Eglin Air Force Base, so it’s no surprise that some 300 aviation/aerospace businesses and military-related contractors have facilities here. Among recent developments, Dayton, Ohio-based MTC Technologies purchased two major homegrown aerospace companies, and L-3 Communications, New York, bought Crestview Aerospace in 2006. All told, the military presence in Okaloosa accounts for a $4-billion economic impact and thousands of jobs.
In 2006, military and local economic development players teamed up to design, build and market the 98-acre Emerald Coast Technology and Research Campus.

Taking advantage of customer proximity

Segers Aerospace Corporation has moved its headquarters and several operational divisions to Crestview, in part because of proximity to key customers. Segers overhauls turbine engines, making Okaloosa County “the strategically right place to be for support of C-130s and the Navy’s P-3 transport plane,’’ says CEO Howard Hadley. Plus, says Hadley, it’s “industrial friendly.” When the relocation is fully completed by summer 2008, Segers employment is expected to increase by 70 to 100 workers.

Meanwhile, Okaloosa County’s “other self’’ — its tourism industry — charms visitors with white sands, blue-green waters and resort affluence. Developer Peter Bos and his firm Legendary Inc. have completed construction of the
13-story Emerald Grande condominium, centerpiece for HarborWalk downtown redevelopment.

Santa Rosa County

Rapid Job Growth

When Eagle Group of Atlanta selected Santa Rosa County as the site for Jubilee, the company’s biggest project and one of this region’s largest new-town plans, Chairman Ron Reeser said a major consideration was the county’s rapid rate in adding jobs — some 2,140 last year. Forested rolling hills provide the setting for the 4,200-acre project, which will contain some 10,000 homes, plus retail, education and healthcare facilities.
Adding to Santa Rosa payrolls in a big way is Clearwire, the Kirkland, Wash.-based provider of wireless broadband service, which will hire 400 to staff its technology service center in Milton.

Room to grow

Milton is also home to The Ropella Group, which began in 2004 with Patrick Ropella’s decision to relocate his two-person, at-home business from Chicago. With a staff of 20 and growing, that company is today one of the nation’s largest chemical industry recruiting firms and will soon be housed in a $1-million, 7,500-square-foot headquarters. Low taxes and favorable business incentives make Florida an ideal location, says Ropella.

Building better healthcare systems

Founded in 1999, Studer Group, a healthcare consulting firm based in Gulf Breeze, is earning worldwide acclaim for its efforts to make healthcare systems, hospitals and medical groups better for employees, physicians and patients. Through onsite meetings and industry speaking events, CEO Quint Studer and his staff coach healthcare leaders throughout the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. From early 2006 to mid-2007, employment at Studer Group swelled from 89 to 122; by year-end, it’s expected to grow another 30%.

Walton County

Sound Economy

Walton County’s coastal panorama includes Seaside, the original model for the New Urbanism movement; Sandestin, a vacationer’s mecca; and St. Joe Co. luxury resorts, WaterColor and WaterSound, nestled between pines and dunes. In the more rural north, developers are adding to the stock of affordable housing and business space; developer John Finch this spring launched the 23-acre Alaqua Park near Interstate 10 to provide commercial and industrial sites.

The Sterling Companies has begun laying infrastructure for Plantation at Freeport, a 10- to 20-year project on 3,600 acres, to provide retail space, middle-income residences and healthcare facilities, plus a business and technology park.

Proof of Walton’s sound economy: At just 1.9%, it claims the state’s lowest unemployment rate.

A Growing Healthcare Hub

As home to six hospitals, a state research institute, several upper-level medical training programs and the new Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, Florida’s western-most city of Pensacola is becoming the place for patients needing treatment, athletes sharpening their performance skills and research-driven companies seeking synergy.

  • Argentina’s national rugby team, Pumas, spent two weeks training at the Andrews Athletes’ Performance Florida center in preparation for the 2007 World Cup.
  • Pensacola Junior College’s Center for Patient Simulation Training and Research — a model center with nine high-fidelity simulators — recently attracted a guest-faculty visit from Harvard University staff who conducted an instructor workshop for Florida universities and healthcare professionals.
  • Actigraph, inventor of a device that monitors human activity levels and caloric burn rate, moved this year to Pensacola for its research environment and proximity to Andrews Institute, a potential research partner. The Actigraph device is used in obesity control, fitness, sports and executive health programs.

Pensacola/ Escambia County

Taking Research to Market

Bryan Clark, whose 10-year-old Pensacola company, Silver Bullet Technology, is a leader in providing check-processing software, is branching out. His newest company — Ceryph — marks the first commercialization of research coming out of the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition. Ceryph markets FIHMC’s CmapTools software to commercial users under the brand name Insight. The software enables users to construct, navigate and share knowledge models represented as concept maps.

Speeding connectivity

Pensacola-based startup Gridsouth Networks has introduced a new Internet service that is 85 times faster than most existing high-speed connections and typically not available outside a megalopolis. “Any business in the region that’s going to bring in customers from outside the region needs the services we offer,’’ says company President Jim Nitterauer, noting, too, that Pensacola is a great place to do business. “The area offers a quality of life better than a big city requiring a long commute.”

Pensacola, one of Florida’s oldest settlements and “the cradle of naval aviation,” is bustling with redevelopment and new technology:
  • Public and private partners are creating a $70-million Maritime Park, to include a multi-sport ball park, maritime museum, conference and university classroom space and fishing pier.
  • A $14-million renovation of the 82-year-old Saenger Theater, home to symphony, opera, theater and Broadway-style productions.
  • The Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition is earning accolades for its cutting-edge research on the relationship between humans and their machines. Launched in 1990 at the University of West Florida by Dr. Kenneth Ford, FIHMC was selected national winner of the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration’s 2007 Excellence in Economic Development Award in the category of technology-led economic development.
Hooked on Science

Students in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are getting a head start on training to be scientists thanks to “I LOVE Science,” an industry-sponsored program that puts real-life researchers into fifth-grade classrooms. An acronym for “Increasing Local Opportunities for Volunteers Enthusiastic about Science,” the program is co-sponsored by Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition and Gulf Power Company, in conjunction with county school systems. The once-monthly classes are conducted by volunteers from numerous public- and private-sector employers, all of whom share a desire to make science lessons fun.

And by all indications, their efforts are paying off. In its first school year (2006-2007), some 240 volunteers participated in 225 classrooms, guiding students in such activities as building a rocket, making a telescope and removing pollution from water. Surveys show that not only are kids getting more excited about science, their standardized test scores are improving.


• Florida A&M University
• Florida State University
• University of West Florida

Community Colleges
• Chipola College
• Gulf Coast Community College
• Okaloosa-Walton College
• Pensacola Junior College
• Tallahassee Community College

• Okaloosa Regional Airport
• Panama City-Bay County International Airport
• Pensacola Regional Airport
• Tallahassee Regional Airport

• Port Panama City
• Port of Pensacola
• Port St. Joe