Shaking the Title as the State’s ‘Best Kept Secret’

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.”

Florida Chamber Outlines Economic Strategies


At a Monday morning seminar in Marianna, the Florida Chamber Foundation talked about strategies that the organization believes are necessary to make this region of the state a hot spot for manufacturing and other job-creating businesses that could “stop the bleeding” as North Florida watches its young people take their talents elsewhere in search of lucrative jobs. They’re trying to make the region a formidable contender on a global economic scale.

The group is taking its message across this sector of the state in a number of seminars like the one held in Marianna. Highlighting some of the observations put forth in “Florida: Made for Trade,” the organization’s Northwest Florida Trade and Logistics Plan, Foundation Executive Vice President Tony Carajal moderated the event.

The goal, Carajal said, is to get North Florida ready to be a key player in the global marketplace, right along with California, Texas, New York, South Florida and other places that more often draw the attention of the auto industry and other job-rich businesses.

One of the necessary strategies in making that happen, he said, is for economic leaders and the general population to start thinking regionally rather than more selfishly about the specific community they occupy when they think about trying to spur growth. Working together rather than against each other could give the area a better shot at landing a business that could translate into jobs for many communities, not just the one place that a big industry might land.

North Florida counties should also build such relationships across state lines, he said, with those in lower Alabama, for instance.

One speaker, Neil Wade of the Bay Economic Development Alliance, provided an example of how that might pay off one day for Jackson and surrounding areas. A big announcement will be formally made on Oct. 3 that Florida officials and their counterparts in Alabama have worked together to all support marketing a property in Campbellton as a “super site” candidate to large businesses looking for a place to set up shop. The announcement will be made in a ceremony at the Florida Welcome Center on U.S. 231 with Jackson County officials and some from Alabama and other Florida counties in attendance.

The auto industry might be one of business-types courted. With officials from both sides of the state line supporting the site, they won’t be competing as a potential site. However, they’ll be free to rigorously compete for businesses that might spring up as a result of the industry moving into town.

A new work has been coined for the concept: Those who espouse it call the strategy a spirit of “co-opertition,” or cooperative competition.

Trying to get industries here is just part of the battle; the region must immediately start building its own new-age manufacturing workforce at the elementary, high-school and college level if the communities hope to catch and hold the serious interest of the companies they want to see moving in. That means tailoring some curriculum tracks to the disciplines that give students a head start on landing such jobs, and give businesses confidence that there’s a workforce waiting in the wings if they were to set up shop.

Trade, logistics and export-oriented manufacturing concerns are some of the target-types the Foundation is after.

The organization wants to develop a Florida Trade and Logistics Institute to continue the state’s quest to move into a stronger position in the global economy. Such a group might help keep track of infrastructure needs as they develop, work out strategies in specific industry-seeing situations, and help keep an overall eye on the many facets that play into the state’s economic goals.