Calhoun Industrial Park Leads Economic Development Efforts in Central NW Florida

Shovel-Ready and WillingCentral Northwest Florida is using an infusion of resources and cash from the state to leverage its economic development plans on an international scaleBy Tisha Crews Keller

The I-10 corridor of Northwest Florida is mainly known for its small-town mindset and lack of interest in the international business scene. But, if certain determined leaders in the area have their way, that’s all about to change.

In an economy that spares no one its wrath, Florida’s rural counties are poised to suffer long-term consequences if they don’t find a way to make themselves more economically diverse — and bring a new mindset for industry into the mix.

With an unemployment rate expected to rise from its current high of 8 percent, with many counties at or near their ad valorem tax caps and no prospects for new revenues, central Northwest Florida communities are scrambling to stem the tide of economic demise.

For economists and development specialists, the path out is plainly clear: partnership.

Historically, it’s been an "every man for himself" attitude in terms of economic politics in the area, points out Marti Vickery, former executive at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.

What regional leaders had to realize, she says, was that everyone in the region benefits from business growth, in terms of spillover housing, shopping, transportation and more. But knowing and doing can be two entirely different things. "Historically, it’s so competitive in rural areas," she explains. "That’s really difficult to do — working together as a region to see benefits as a region."

There are also myriad business challenges native to rural communities. While the region has plenty of developable land, many of the other necessary parts — such as civil infrastructure — are lacking, explains Kristy Speers, executive director of the Calhoun Chamber.

Enter Gov. Jeb Bush. His Rural Economic Development Catalyst Project, funded and managed through Enterprise Florida, set out in 2004 to identify the rural areas in Florida that were of critical economic concern. Once identified, three Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern (RACEC) were encouraged to work together to produce shovel-ready sites suitable for domestic and international marketing efforts to the business community.

State funding has helped these rural markets perform economic research, site selection and marketing to lure private business into their midst for tomorrow’s economic growth.

The end goal was to spur economic development through industries offering high-wage jobs and capital investment. But extensive buy-in was a key component.

Speers talks about what spurred these leaders to action: "We have lots of timber and construction businesses (in the area). When mills shut down, it affects those loggers in the forest, and the people who transport the product, but it also affects the gas stations where they fill up, and others who help them get from point A to point B."

A shared vision

The Northwest RACEC, made up of Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties and the Freeport community in Walton County, jointly decided that the Calhoun Industrial Park would be the site for its Catalyst project.

This site was chosen for its location, resources and marketability.

With the site’s proximity to ports, forestry resources, workforce makeup and other factors, independent consultants identified the targeted industry for the region as: green engineering and building materials, storm resistant buildings, innovations with composite material, distribution and logistics, and cutting-edge technologies.

Rick Marcum, Opportunity Florida’s executive director and project coordinator, says the deepwater ports in Panama City and Port St. Joe are a key component for luring the targeted industries.

Marcum believes that when St. Joe Company reversed its direction for the development of Port St. Joe from residential and retail to a commercial deep-water port community, the region realized its potential for distribution-dependent industry.

Cambridge Systematics, a consultancy hired to evaluate the RACEC’s potential, estimated in 2006 that 100 to 150 jobs — not including subcontractors — would initially spring forth from the project. In addition, job creation could be valued at $30 million to $46 million (with an annual average wage of $44,000). These numbers are small compared with large metropolitan areas, but could reinvigorate a rural region.

Site for sore eyes

The Calhoun Industrial Park began as an extension of the Calhoun County Airport, built in 1991. The airport is working to get runways paved and has built new hangars for aircraft storage.

As the only airport in the area north of the Panama City flight center, facility officials have received inquiries from Bay County residents on moving planes up from the existing Panama City airport since storage fees at the new international center are expected to skyrocket.

GREEN ACRES The Calhoun Industrial Park near Blountstown is heading full steam toward shovel-ready development that promises to bring new prosperity to the I-10 corridor. Photo courtesy Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.According to Vickery, the 146-acre industrial park currently has 10 airplane hangars, sewer, water and electric service, a minimal water treatment facility and has completed federal and state regulatory agency permitting for improvements to the existing infrastructure. Parcels of various sizes are already set aside and zoned for shovel-ready business.

The Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce is already actively promoting the site as a cradle for new industry. And Marcum points out that regional leaders are in talks with industry in Peru and the U.S. military.

Calhoun County Commissioner Dan Wyrick says local leaders are committed to moving ahead on their own if funding is jeopardized by the state’s economic woes but points to permitting as the main obstacle to bringing industry to Florida.

While the airport already has Department of Transportation money to pave its runways, it took two years to get a state environmental permit to do so and the county is still waiting on approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Part of the Catalyst project’s benefit is to help streamline the permitting process. Early in the process Enterprise Florida brought together officials from all the major permitting agencies for a pre-permitting review.

The best laid plans

Enterprise Florida planned to spend $2 million for the Rural Catalyst Project. After site evaluation and consulting fees, approximately $1.5 million was to be left for domestic and international marketing for the four state sites.

The Rural Infrastructure Fund, administered by the Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, is on tap to fund infrastructure studies and possibly improvements. In the 2008–09 fiscal year, the fund was flush with $4.7 million to spend statewide. But this year’s budget-decimating legislative session cut it to $1.5 million for FY 09–10, meaning local projects will have to rely more on their own fundraising abilities to keep the project moving forward.

Enterprise Florida plans to convene a "Funder’s Strategy" meeting to help identify grants to fund the necessary improvements to get the Calhoun site shovel-ready. Luckily, the City of Blountstown was awarded $300,000 for its infrastructure and engineering analysis work at the Catalyst site.

Bringing this project to fruition is key to the area’s economic future. Ad valorem taxes paid by industrial park businesses will be shared by all the counties — a key reason they were able to put aside their territorial issues. For rural areas with low populations and declining property values, any addition to the tax roll revenue is met with welcome anticipation.

Determination is key

So, what’s in store for the Calhoun Industrial Park? The Rural Infrastructure Fund grant will allow project leaders to determine what infrastructure improvements they need to get the site ready. After that, they’ll have to rely on various state and federal grant programs — and federal stimulus money — to pay for any needed upgrades.

While the timeline may change due to budget crunches, Commissioner Wyrick maintains that Calhoun County is committed to doing the project whether it’s funded by the state or not.

According to Enterprise Florida, this regional focus is a new trend that goes all the way up to the federal level — and the Calhoun project is at the leading edge of that movement.

"Now that Green Circle Bio is in Cottondale, business leaders in Sweden are suddenly asking, ‘What’s Northwest Florida?’" Vickery points out, referring to a plant that is converting Florida pine trees to wood pellets that are shipped to Europe and burned with coal to provide cleaner energy. "That one business has brought us lots of international attention."