By VALERIE GARMAN | The News Herald
MARIANNA — Business leaders from across Northwest Florida gathered in Marianna on Monday to discuss ways to shake the region’s unofficial title as the state’s “best kept secret.”
The need to attract new manufacturing, develop a skilled workforce and better market the area were major themes to come out of the Florida Chamber Foundation’s regional rollout of its statewide Trade and Logistics Study, a strategic transportation plan to grow trade, freight, manufacturing and logistics industries in the state.
Foundation vice president Tony Carvajal presented an overview of the study, noting $20 billion worth of goods transported in and out of Florida each year are not even made in the state.
“If all we want to be is great seaports, airports, if all we want to do is move things on rails and trucks, and all we want to do is be a pass through for the rest of the world … we know how to play that game,” Carvajal said. “If we’re going to grow this state, if we’re going to grow particularly Northwest Florida , this is one of the things we’ve got to focus on.”
The statement was one repeated several times through the half-day event, as several regional transportation and economic development experts took to the stage discuss the day’s themes. Port Panama City Director Wayne Stubbs agreed new manufacturing should be a major focus in the coming years. One of the study’s primary recommendations was to leverage the state’s port investments toward attracting new port-related manufacturers, he said.
“What’s been mentioned is that we need to make more things in Florida , and we’re a believer in that,” Stubbs said. “Supporting the industrial development side of our mission, I think it pays the most bang for its buck.”
At Port Panama City, 2,600 jobs are directly dependent on the port, and another 8,200 are indirectly related. The port’s major manufacturing tenants include Berg Steel Pipe, Oceaneering International and Green Circle Bio Energy.
“I think that’s the future we need to be focused on,” Stubbs said. “A regional port like Panama City is a good testament to that.”
Neal Wade, director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance, said to compete for manufacturing projects, the area first needs to change its perception as a tourist economy and develop a skilled workforce, something that is becoming increasingly important for companies.
Wade also is part of an effort to lure a major economic development project to a 2,200-acre “mega-site” in Jackson County , with automobile manufacturing poised as the target industry.
However, increased competition with Mexico ’s rapidly growing auto industry has officials instead looking toward original equipment manufacturers, which supply parts to larger automotive companies. Other opportunities could stem from involvement in moving parts between the U.S. and Mexico from Port Panama City.
“I think we’re going to become, in Northwest Florida, the manufacturing center of Florida ,” Wade said.
Ultimately, Carvajal said for every 10 jobs in export-related manufacturing created, 30 more are produced.
“The whole I-10 corridor is a growing part of the trade and logistics story across Florida and across the Southeast; it’s a global game-changer,” he said, calling on the leaders in the room to ensure the region plays a major role in Florida ’s future trade lines. “There’s one phrase I really, really hate about Northwest Florida : ‘it’s the best kept secret.’ If we can get rid of that phrase and never have it spoken in Florida again, I think we’ll make some huge advances.”