Charlie Crist: Florida's CEO

Gov. Charlie Crist tells 850 that he sees great potential in Northwest Florida despite the nation's economic woes. The area's greatest assets? Its beaches, wide open spaces and people. Its challenges? Thinking like a region. By Linda Kleindienst and Maria Mallory White A Conversation With Florida’s CEOGov. Charlie Crist tells 850 that he sees great potential in Northwest Florida despite the nation's economic woes. The area's greatest assets? Its beaches, wide open spaces and people. Its challenges? Thinking like a region.


By Linda Kleindienst and Maria Mallory White

Conventional wisdom about Florida’s economy is dark. But if you ask Florida’s governor what he sees as the future of Northwest Florida, he looks past tomorrow’s clouds and sees something quite different – underlying strengths that promise a bright future for this region.

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850 Magazine recently had a conversation with the Sunshine State’s chief executive officer, Gov. Charlie Crist, in his Capitol office to get his insight on the region’s future. He sees an area with an attractive lifestyle and climate that has great potential for growth in new industries, research and global investments.

Asked to describe Northwest Florida, Crist pauses, smiles and pronounces: “Florida’s newly discovered treasure.”

Crist is an unabashed cheerleader for the area he first began exploring three decades ago as a Florida State University undergraduate. With the area’s labor force of more than 670,000 and wide open spaces waiting for development – not to mention its natural beauty and “the prettiest beaches on the planet” – he sees it as a bright spot in the midst of the state’s economic woes, a largely untapped resource with tremendous growth potential.

The area’s biggest challenge?

“Identifying who the region is and what it wants to become,” Crist says. “When a company is looking to relocate, they look to understand the region’s identity and determine if they see themselves thriving there.”

Economic Boom Ahead

In the 16 counties nestled between the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the state borders of Alabama and Georgia, Crist sees an economic boom hovering on the horizon.

“Its people have great energy. They’re honest, straightforward. And they’re the No. 1 selling point for the region,” Crist says. “The beaches obviously speak for themselves. They’re extraordinary, exceptional, the prettiest on the planet.”

His natural optimism for the area is backed by more than just wishful thinking. Northwest Florida is growing faster than the nation. Walton and Wakulla counties, although still sparsely populated, are among the 10 fastest growing counties in the state, their populations expanding by one-third since the 2000 census. Many of the area’s new residents come from elsewhere in Florida.

“There’s no question Northwest Florida has a unique feel to it,” Crist says. “Different people at different times want a different tempo. If it’s now South Beach, maybe later in life it’s Santa Rosa County.”

The region is a major draw for domestic tourism and boasts several university research centers that focus on the sciences and engineering, such as the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the University of Florida’s Research and Engineering Education Facility, based in Okaloosa County.

It is also home to seven military installations, one naval and six aviation-related – including Eglin Air Force Base, the nation’s largest military base, which sprawls across 724 square miles in parts of Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties. Eglin alone is estimated to have a regional economic impact of $5 billion.

Crist sees the area’s economy growing through a focus on high-paid, high-skill jobs, many of them related to the military, technology and higher education initiatives.

“Aviation, health sciences, renewable energy, and transportation and logistics are the four major target industries,” he says. “Florida will continue to recruit biotechnology research institutes. However, it is important for every region to look at the aviation industry. Renewable energy will also be a strong focus.”

He points to the recent study by Florida’s Great Northwest – an economic development group representing the region’s 16 counties – that recommended the pursuit of a Green Energy Business Park, which would use either combustion or gasification technology.

“This focus will improve many nature-based and cultural-based opportunities for Northwest Florida, especially when it comes to ecotourism,” Crist says. “There is great growth potential and incentives for people to have green practices and be more environmentally aware, which is great when you are trying to preserve the great natural settings in Northwest Florida.”

Preserving the Natural Resources

The governor also credits the St. Joe Co. for working to preserve the area’s natural resources even as it develops its vast holdings of former timberland into new communities.

“What they’ve done in the way they have developed their holdings is very responsible, with a real eye toward protecting the environment and growing smart,” he says. “I’m very pleased at how that’s emerging.”

Meanwhile, the state is doing its share to hold on to the natural feel of North Florida by preserving thousands of acres of land for future generations to enjoy. The state park system currently manages more than 50 parks throughout North Florida. More than half are within a few miles of the Interstate 10 corridor between Pensacola and Jacksonville.

And through the Florida Forever program, the state has identified almost 700,000 acres in northern Florida for acquisition. More than 30 different projects stretch across 30 counties, designed to protect threatened and endangered habitats and species as well as valuable forest lands.

Though economic times are tough, Crist says it is important to keep moving ahead with programs like Florida Forever because of their importance to the quality of life that Floridians enjoy. This year, he asked the Florida Legislature to set aside $300 million for the land-buying program, and state lawmakers agreed. Legislators also agreed to keep the program going past 2010.

“Through land acquisition programs, we hope to expand conservation lands and recreational opportunities throughout North Florida, particularly around the interstate and other often-traveled roads,” Crist says.

Soon to become part of the region’s economic mix is the new (and yet to be officially named) Panama City-Bay County International Airport in West Bay, a facility already under construction that the governor believes will truly open the state’s northwest territory to the world, enhancing the area’s four existing commercial airports, 14 smaller public airports and two deep-water ports.

“The impact the new airport will have cannot be overestimated. It’s going to be tremendously significant, and I base that upon the area where I grew up, Tampa Bay,” he says. “The Tampa Bay area is, I think, an extraordinary example of how the airport can make an enormous difference in terms of not just tourism, but people. When they are exposed to an area, realize its natural beauty and the warmth of the people … the word spreads naturally from one individual to another. So, I think that, because of the airport, the impact it will have on the growth in the Panhandle will be fantastic.”

And he sees the potential for Port St. Joe to become a cruise and cargo ship hub, promising to work to make it happen if that is indeed what the region sets as a goal.

Cooperative Approach by Leaders

Perhaps most impressive to the governor is the willingness of business, political and community leaders in Northwest Florida to work together in promoting their region and mapping out an economic future designed to help each county in the region.

“Many areas around the state have experienced rapid growth. As the economy ebbs and flows, it is important to learn from what has happened and use it to plan for the future,” he says. But the key to growing smart, he adds, “is developing a comprehensive plan that identifies a region’s assets and protects them. The challenge is finding the balance between economic growth and preserving what makes Northwest Florida so unique.”

Coastal Vision 3000, a group of political, civic, tourism and business leaders, has launched a unified marketing campaign in promoting the 181 miles of world-class beaches that stretch from Port St. Joe west to Pensacola – an area it has simply labeled “THE Beach.” That unified approach, Crist believes, could give Northwest Florida an edge as it works to market its assets to outsiders, often going head-to-head with other better known coastal areas of the state.

“Those groups are very important,” he says. “It’s like a chamber of commerce, if you will, to continue to get the message out about a particular area, what its assets are, how it’s a good place to raise a family, things of that nature. Strong regional support … is very appealing to prospective companies.”

As for the battle between Florida’s regions to attract visitors, new residents and investors, he says, “Internal competition is a good thing. It’s like Florida versus Florida State or the University of Miami. It’s what a big, vibrant state like Florida consists of.”

Military and Aviation are Economic Drivers

While the battle rages to win the hearts of tourists and new residents, Crist sees the strong, continued military presence in Northwest Florida – and the area’s history of aviation – as a huge economic driver in the immediate future. About 35 percent of the regional economic output is driven by defense spending – a far higher percentage than any other area of the state, the closest being Northeast Florida at 18 percent. Not only do the bases themselves affect the local economy, but they generate spin-off businesses. Military retirees often remain in the area, using their expertise to start aerospace or defense-related businesses and becoming a vital link in the area’s emerging economy.

In July, during a 10-day trade and economic development mission to Europe, one of the governor’s first stops was at the Farnborough International Air Show, the largest of its kind in the world, where Florida hosted the largest exhibit of any U.S. state in an effort to bring home some aviation business. It appears to have worked. And while state non-disclosure laws prevent him from being able to reveal the details, the tally for Northwest Florida was: actual and expected aviation-related sales, more than $22 million; investment leads, eight prospects; job creation potential, 300 jobs.

Crist’s predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush, paid close attention to Florida’s military, meeting regularly with base commanders and lobbying Washington to ensure that the state’s installations would survive congressional budget cuts. Crist is reviving the get-togethers.

“Particularly in Pensacola and Panama City, the military presence, I think, is very important to the stability and the growth potential of the region,” Crist says. “The military is a huge economic driver in the Panhandle. We’re blessed to have the number of installations we do throughout the state, but there is a significant concentration in the northwest. I continue to visit those different bases, and I’m honored to be able to do so and just continue to work hard to show them how much we appreciate them, how much we care and what a treasured part of the state they are.”

He also sees the area benefiting from partnerships with the state and continued strong leadership from the area in the Legislature. In mid-November, during the Legislature’s post-election organizational session, state Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, is slated to become speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, a post he will hold for two years.

This year, the Legislature passed a measure that allows the state to tap into its pension fund to underwrite the start-up of high-technology initiatives – a move that Crist thinks could particularly benefit Northwest Florida. The new law allows the state to invest $2 billion a year.

“And this is in a tough economic time we are able to do this,” he says, crediting state lawmakers with being innovative in making sure new opportunities exist to boost the state economy. “By being able to tap into reserves that we have through our pension fund, we have hundreds of billions of dollars that we can borrow against to encourage new businesses to come to the Sunshine State.”

Speed-Up of Construction

Hoping to give the state’s economy a short-term boost, Crist in August ordered state agencies to speed up billions of dollars in already-approved construction and capital outlay projects that had been delayed by regulations. And “think tanks” are being created to allow the state’s business leaders and economic experts to look for ways to improve the state work force, international trade, small businesses and rural economic development – all areas important to the future of Northwest Florida. Meanwhile, Crist says the state will work with groups in the region to create a vision for how the area will look decades in the future. And it will continue to partner with the region on tradeshows, consultant events and marketing initiatives.

“It is important to work together and decide what is best for the region,” he says. “In 2003 … Florida Great Northwest developed a strategic plan to serve as a long-term guide for sustainable economic development. The plan is in line with the ‘Roadmap for Florida’s Future,’ the state’s five-year strategic plan for economic growth and diversification.”

And Enterprise Florida has been working with regional groups to target industries that pay above-average wages to lure them to the area.
While he is governor of all of Florida, Crist admits he is slightly partial to the area where he now spends much of his time.

“It’s a great blessing to have the people of your state give you the opportunity to serve, as Florida has given me. I just count my blessings every day,” he says. “We care deeply about all parts of the state, but certainly our neighbors to the capital in Northwest Florida, they mean a lot to me.”