Northwest Florida is Poised to Separate from the Pack
While the current national recession has taken its toll on us here in the Panhandle, just like it has hurt people throughout Florida, I am confident we will ultimately weather the storm and, for a variety of reasons, weather it better than many other parts of the state.
Northwest Florida is Poised to Separate from the Pack By Allan Bense
As a lifelong resident of Northwest Florida who grew up on a dairy farm, I have seen this part of the state grow from an economy dependent almost entirely upon agriculture to one that is diverse and on the cusp of rapid expansion. While the current national recession has taken its toll on us here in the Panhandle, just like it has hurt people throughout Florida, I am confident we will ultimately weather the storm and, for a variety of reasons, weather it better than many other parts of the state.
In Leon and surrounding counties, while state government and the major universities have been forced to make cutbacks, they have not gone out of business and continue to employ thousands of people in jobs that are relatively safe — even in times of severe economic conditions. In other parts of Florida, major employers are not just cutting back, they are closing.
The western Panhandle, from Panama City to Pensacola, has emerged as a premier region in the state’s $50 billion-plus defense industry — serving as a locale for innovations in defense, aviation and services vital to homeland security. It also represents 35 percent of Northwest Florida’s gross regional product, with the bulk of the rest coming from agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and, to a lesser extent these days, construction.
The stability of Northwest Florida’s military/defense sector has forged a strong foundation for the region’s economic future. And the icing on the cake is the melding of related industries such as information technology, photonics, computer modeling, simulation, training, aerospace and life sciences.
At Enterprise Florida, the primary organization for statewide economic development, we have concluded that for Florida to attract and expand these high-tech/high-wage industries, we must expand our talent pool and place a stronger emphasis on teaching subjects related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics in our public schools, community colleges and universities. While Okaloosa County continues to lead the state in academic performance for students from pre-K through high school, we also have Florida State University, a Tier 1 research university with its National High Magnetic Field Laboratory; the rapidly expanding University of West Florida in Pensacola and its cross-town Institute of Human and Machine Cognition; and the University of Florida’s Graduate Engineering Research Center — all working to turn out graduates who can fill these high-tech spots that are becoming available within these new clusters.
From the addition of the forthcoming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Mission at Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County to the soon-to-be-completed $335 million International Airport in Panama City (the first major airport to be constructed in the United States in 10 years), things are happening in Northwest Florida that are positive and will provide good, high-paying jobs for decades to come.
Most importantly, let’s not forget what really "brought us to the dance" — namely our wonderful people and our tremendous natural resources, including the beautiful, pristine Gulf of Mexico. Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County is widely recognized for having the finest oysters and seafood in the world. And nearby in Bay County, the Econfina Springs generate almost 500 million gallons of pure, clean water daily for consumer and industrial uses. The sugar-white sand beaches of South Walton County are visited by tourists from all over the globe. And the historic downtown Pensacola area, so rich in archeological history, recently received a visit from the king of Spain.
Undeniably, Northwest Florida has "sizzle." Do you want to move to North Dakota? How about Kansas? Wisconsin? Too often we take for granted our tremendous weather, our beautiful Gulf and so much more. While the real estate frenzy and eight hurricanes in two years drove housing and insurance costs to unacceptable levels in the early part of this decade, the most recent years have seen all prices come down significantly, especially in Northwest Florida. While painful, the correction has allowed our precious sliver of the state to once again be affordable for tourists, retirees and new industry looking to locate here.
I love Northwest Florida. As an elected official, I had the privilege of visiting every corner of our great state. While I love Florida as a whole, I truly loved coming back to the beautiful natural environment, Southern accents and laid-back style of life we enjoy here at home.
Allan Bense, a resident of Panama City, served eight years in the state House of Representatives, including two as House speaker. He is currently vice chairman of Enterprise Florida and chairman of the board for the James Madison Institute and Gulf Coast Community Hospital. He is a partner in GAC Contractors.