Married to the Military

Al Wenstrand, president of Florida’s Great Northwest, reflects on the military’s impact on the 850 region’s economic health.

Married to the Military By President Al Wenstrand

I’m pleased that 850 Magazine invited me as a guest columnist in the issue focusing on the military’s impact in Northwest Florida, which is immense and transcends the entire region. Although we have certainly felt the effect of the global economic recession, the military presence adds stability to the region’s economy and is one of the major factors in making Northwest Florida the best-performing economy in Florida.

Our research has identified more than 1,900 businesses across our 16 counties that support the aviation, aerospace, defense and national security industries. Many may assume that these are all large corporations such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed, which do have a significant presence in the region. However, the majority are small, home-grown businesses native to Northwest Florida that market their products and services nationally and globally and employ a work force of more than 70,000.

Many of our residents are able to see the military daily as a result of the flying missions associated with NAS Pensacola, NAS Whiting Field, Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Tyndall Air Force Base. These flying missions are critical to our economy and to the defense of our nation. They also are a valuable economic engine, and we must ensure that these missions stay and grow in Northwest Florida.

However, the economic future of the region is more closely tied to the research and development missions at Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases, as well as Naval Support Activity Panama City and its Naval Surface Warfare Center. The national defense laboratories associated with these have been key to establishing a quiet but very dynamic defense-contractor presence, as well as serving as a catalyst for the development of a string of pearls of R&D activities that span the coast.

Along with the national defense laboratories, military-related R&D is occurring at research institutions such as Pensacola’s Institute for Human and Machine Cognition; the University of Florida’s Research Engineering and Education Facility, located adjacent to Eglin Air Force Base; and Florida State University through such institutions as the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, the High-Performance Materials Institute and the Center for Advanced Power Systems. The military, the defense contractors and the research institutions are providing leading-edge research in areas such as nanotechnology, composite materials, micro-electronics and robotics.

A cadre of researchers in areas such as engineering, oceanography, mathematics, information technology and many other scientific and technical disciplines are now calling Northwest Florida home. They are developing the products that will make our nation more secure and that will keep our men and women in uniform out of harm’s way. These are also the products that will spin off into civilian applications such as medical technologies, computing and renewable energy.

The military-associated R&D is creating the opportunity for Northwest Florida to emerge as one of the nation’s leading centers for the development and testing of uninhabited systems, sometimes referred to as unmanned vehicles. Our string of pearls of research institutions and national defense laboratories, coupled with the military mission range in the Gulf of Mexico, provide a unique area for the research, development and testing of uninhabited systems in the air, on land, on the water’s surface and underwater.

This military-initiated R&D, as well as the high-tech infrastructure and regional services supporting the seven military bases, are providing the foundation for our future — a diversified and sustainable business mix that goes well beyond the region’s traditional reliance on retail, tourism, real estate, construction and agriculture. These businesses also represent high-wage, high-skill jobs that have increased in demand even during the recent economic downturn.

Northwest Florida’s military presence is a unique asset that fosters the growth and development of a number of our industries. As such, the military is a vital component to the region’s current economy and to its future economic success.

Al Wenstrand is the president of Florida’s Great Northwest, a regional economic development organization representing the 16 counties in Northwest Florida. In his role, Wenstrand directs all aspects of the business, including the areas of marketing, business development, workforce initiative and administration.