Jennifer Conoley Steers Region Toward Bright Future
Taking the helm of Florida's Great Northwest, Conoley has big plans
On March 23, 2020, just days after the global stock market experienced its fastest, most dramatic tumble since ı929, Jennifer Conoley took the helm at the region’s premier economic development agency, Florida’s Great Northwest (FGNW).
It was a sign, she said. Things could only go up from there.
But even amid a global pandemic, political pandemonium and a change in leadership, FGNW hasn’t lost steam. For Conoley, the transition to her new role was smooth.
Conoley grew up in Port St. Joe as the daughter of a paper mill worker. She earned a degree in public relations at Florida State University, and after doing some work with a statewide foundation focused on people with disabilities, Conoley married her high school sweetheart and moved to Panama City Beach.
It was there that she gained an appreciation for economic development professionals. Conoley went to work with the Bay County Economic Development Alliance and subsequently joined the economic development team at Gulf Power Co.
After conducting a nationwide search for a new leader, FGNW found Conoley in its own backyard.
“I was excited to join the regional economic development organization for Northwest Florida and to have the opportunity to serve ı2 counties from Escambia to Franklin,” Conoley said. “At our core, we operate on three pillars: promoting Northwest Florida as a top location for business, advocating for issues that affect our economic development and collaborating across our region to tackle issues that affect how we attract companies.”
The organization focuses on creating robust marketing campaigns and keeps close tabs on developments in each of the counties it serves. Its target audience comprises company executives, relevant industry sectors and site selection consultants.
With the COVID-ı9 pandemic limiting travel, Conoley launched in 2020 FGNW’s latest digital marketing campaign, a video series called “Broadcasting Northwest Florida.” Featuring interviews with subject matter experts, the series serves as a platform for highlighting each county’s assets and successful organizations. At this writing, the videos, ı9 in total, have attracted more than 8,000 views by top decision-makers, laying the groundwork for future partnerships.
Conoley is sold on the importance of regional economic development collaboration. The Northwest Florida FORWARD plan, launched in October 2020, included a virtual event aimed at stimulating regional cooperation. More than 350 stakeholders from across the region participated and learned about the strategies and future emphases of FGNW’s five councils: Business Vitality, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Infrastructure, Quality of Space and Talent.
“I think having our local entities really lean into the Northwest Florida brand has been key to our success,” Conoley said. “I’m so proud of the collaborative spirit that our local partners have adopted. They know there’s strength in numbers, so I think that’s why they devote so much time and attention toward developing our region.”
Cooperation and hospitality, Conoley said, contribute to making Northwest Florida attractive. Often, companies moving to the region are surprised at the level of assistance they receive from local elected officials.
Though prime considerations vary among companies, quality of place consistently remains a priority. This is especially true for company executives looking to move their families.
“When you think about it, many locations have a great quality of place, it just looks a little different than here,” said Conoley. “What sets us apart is, when companies are making these decisions, we know they’re considering money, risk and speed. Related to all of those elements, we have a talent pool here that we are continuing to grow and strengthen.”
Conoley said Northwest Florida’s talent pool includes military spouses and personnel separating from the region’s six military installations, many of them appropriate to aerospace and cybersecurity businesses.
Both the region’s climate and its climate for business are enticing. Many times, Conoley has met with organizations from West Coast states seeking to escape burdensome taxes and regulations.
Among aerospace companies new to the region, Singapore-based ST Engineering is operational in Pensacola and embarking on the construction of a new hangar. In 2020, FGNW obtained commitments from two more aerospace companies interested in the region. Conoley looks forward to making the official announcements this year.
“In the future, I think we will see cybersecurity as an important growth sector,” Conoley said. “Counties such as Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa have the assets to support that growth.”
The region, Conoley pointed out, is rich in developable land with access to multimodal transportation networks and is home to deepwater ports with foreign trade zone status. She anticipates that manufacturing will become a greater factor in small, predominantly rural communities.
At present, Conoley is excited about the Triumph Gulf Coast-funded marketing campaign that FGNW is rolling out.
“We’ll be able to not only do some research and education but also take that data and implement it into a marketing strategy to continue growing our project pipeline,” Conoley said. “Our region has always been strong in tourism and military sectors, so we plan to keep focusing on key industries while making others stronger.
“There are so many other regional organizations across the country fighting for these same job-generating projects. It’s a tough competition out there, so we make sure to be in that fight every single day.”