Diverse Economy Helps Escambia County’s Job Growth Trajectory

When the bottom dropped out of the economy in 2008, the private business sector in Escambia County put together a plan that focused on creating jobs, opportunity and investment. It resulted in Vision 2015 and a goal to create 3,000 new jobs. But even before the clock closed out 2014, the plan was way ahead of schedule. The total of new jobs was already pushing 8,000. 

Some of that growth is due to the expansion of Navy Federal Credit Union, which announced in October 2014 that its plan is to bring 5,000 new jobs to the area by 2026, for a total employee base of 10,000 workers.

In making the announcement, Navy Federal CEO Cutler Dawson said of Pensacola, “It’s a great place to grow your business and a wellspring of talented people to employ.” And that’s exactly the message Pensacola and Escambia County economic development officials are sending to the world. 

So far, it seems to be working. Existing companies are expanding, and new companies are coming to the county’s deepwater port, the international airport and local commerce/industrial parks.

In October another big announcement came from International Paper, a global leader in packaging and paper products, which plans to reinvest more than $90 million over the next five years by reopening its Pensacola Containerboard Mill, located in Cantonment. The mill, which during its last year of operation had a local economic impact of $330 million, produces material to create corrugated brown boxes and fluff pulp for diapers and other hygiene products.

Matt Burke

Jerry Margarden (left), outgoing president and CEO of the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce and Scott Luth, head of economic development.

“There’s a much more upbeat feeling here today than we had even five years ago,” says Jerry Maygarden, the outgoing president and CEO of the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce who is now taking over the Chamber Foundation. 

Indeed, there is a certain bustle in the region.

There is a renaissance going on in the downtown area, sparked in part by new development from The Studer Group. And the greater metropolitan area is growing. Houses are going up, people are moving in and getting jobs.

Meanwhile, the military side of the economic equation remains strong, pumping up to $6.7 billion a year into the local economy, while tourism has grown to where Pensacola Beach had its best summer season ever in 2014.

“We are very fortunate here with the diverse nature of the economy,”

explains Scott Luth, CEO of the Community Economic Development Association for Pensacola and Escambia County, the new agency that will lead the county’s economic development efforts. “In 2013, we had West Fraser elect to reopen the McDavid Mill to cut lumber to support the growing construction industry. Another company in the paper printing business is looking at expansion. Now there are two new companies at the port and another at the airport.” 

Economic developers in the county are working to attract suppliers for Airbus, which this year will begin assembling A320 jetliners at a new facility in Mobile, Alabama. The first planes are expected to start rolling off that assembly line in 2016. 

Another focus is on technology. At the University of West Florida, a new major field of study is cyber security. In 2014, the university’s Innovation Institute launched the Center for Cybersecurity. 

“Cybersecurity is more than just IT,” said Sikha Bagui, the center’s director. “Cybersecurity has applications in the health care sector, telecommunications sector, financial sector, industrial sector and defense contracting. There is a critical need to fill 50,000 cybersecurity jobs in just the federal government and private industry.”

Luth said part of the area’s attraction for business is the fact that within a five-mile radius the county has Interstate 10, rail lines, a deepwater port, an international airport, two four-year colleges and Naval Air Station Pensacola.

Meanwhile, from a lifestyle standpoint, the community offers a double A baseball team that plays in a new state-of-the-art stadium, a growing downtown retail corridor in Pensacola, a cultural hub that offers opera, orchestra and theater productions, as well as a historical center that has become part of the tourism lure.

“We used to talk about only the beach. Now people are coming to see where Andrew Jackson once slept,” says Maygarden. “We’ve got an emerging cultural arts center, and it all adds to the attractiveness.”

Pensacola is also unusual in that, for its size, it has a large medical complex with four major hospital systems — Sacred Heart Health System, West Florida Hospital, Baptist Health Care (which includes the world-famous Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine) and Naval Hospital Pensacola. And those facilities have affiliations with major medical centers around the country, including the Mayo Clinic and M.D. Anderson. Maygarden says new businesses being courted by the county are appreciative of how unusual it is to find that kind of a health delivery system in a region the size of the greater Pensacola area.

In selling the region, the county also has the military to thank for a workforce that some employers are looking to hire.

“Thanks to the huge military industry complex we have, there is the availability of a workforce,” Maygarden says. “And we’re beginning to see the fruits of that now in people who call us asking about sites. The local colleges also place a heavy emphasis on programs that focus on the aerospace fields.”

In 2012, Mayor Ashton Hayward unveiled the city’s new effort to change its image with a branding campaign that included a new logo and a new motto — Pensacola: The Upside of Florida. The thrust was to capture a larger share of the future by improving the regional economy.

Luth credits the aggressiveness of the community — the city, the county and the private sector, all working together — with helping to bring many of those 8,000 new jobs to the greater Pensacola area during the last several years.  

“They have created an atmosphere in which these companies can be successful,” he says.