If We Build It, Will They Come?
'Yes,' say the players behind a new airport under construction in Bay County, Florida. Preparing the work force for target-industry investors is how it will happen.
uch is riding on the economic development payoff of a new airport under construction near Panama City, Fla., that is scheduled to open next May. The mood at the site in late January was undeniably upbeat, with progress ahead of schedule and site selectors and potential site developers buzzing around in helicopters overhead. The new Panama City-Bay County International Airport may be the area's show stealer, but there's more to the story.
That's why whoever replaces Ted Clem as executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance in Panama City, Fla., is in for an interesting ride. Clem began work as head of the Albany (Ga.)-Dougherty Economic Development Commission in mid-January after a decade in the Panama City post. His departure came as a surprise to many in northwest Florida and throughout the Sunshine State, given his success at bringing thousands of new jobs to the area and in helping to lay the groundwork for the next chapter in the region's development playbook. At press time, Interim Executive Director Ed Wright was screening applicants for the Bay County opening, which is scheduled to be filled with a new executive director by April.
The new hire joins a series of events still unfolding that could transform the 16-county Florida's Great Northwest region into a new economic engine for the state and the U.S. southeast. These include, among other things, a 2008 revision to the region's 2005 strategic economic development plan that recommends specific measures for diversifying the economic base; key work-force development initiatives involving public and private resources, including, in February, a work-force training grant from Florida's Great Northwest to Gulf Coast Community College to improve IT skills in the labor force; a more receptive ear, or ears, in Tallahassee with respect to developers' efforts to boost northwest Florida's stature as a convention destination; and perhaps most significant of all, progress on development of the 75,000-acre (30,375-hectare) West Bay Sector Plan on land owned by the St. Joe Co. northwest of Panama City. The centerpiece there is the new Panama City-Bay County International Airport, occupying about 4,000 acres (1,620 hectares) of the tract.
The country's first major new commercial airport since Denver International in 1995 is also the country's first green airport (the terminal will be certified LEED-Silver); it will replace the existing Panama City airport in May 2010. That 710-acre (288-hectare) property will be handed over at that time to The St. Andrew Bay Land Company, a subsidiary of Leucadia National Corp., for sustainable redevelopment into a residential, office and retail complex – a live-work-play community that will grow over the next 20 years according to what the market demands.
A Delicate Balance
Relocating a commercial airport is no small feat, and 10 years and several mainly environmental lawsuits later, airport project managers, administrators and potential site developers are watching steady progress unfold on the 10,000-ft. (3,048-m.) main runway, terminal, air-traffic-control tower and other infrastructure.
"I was surprised to learn the level of public interest in relocating an airport," recalls Billy Buzzett, St. Joe's vice president, public affairs, for the West Bay Sector project, with a hint of understatement. "But it turns out the interest was in the West Bay, below the airport. [Opponents] wanted to see if they could change the paradigm of traditional development in Florida and not build on every square of inch of land that fronts water.
"We looked long and hard at that, and we were able to do it, to retreat from the coast and put the airport inland and create value around the airport, allowing us to preserve the land around the bay," he explains. In all, about 41,000 acres (16,600 hectares) are protected from development by conservation easement, most of it around West Bay and to the south of the airport. "The numbers are pretty staggering – it's 62.5 square miles [162 sq. km.] of preserve," Buzzett points out. "You can
balance economic development and environmental protection, which is unusual these days."
The main runway originally was designed to be 8,400 feet (2,560 m.) long, but was lengthened to 10,000 ft. (3,048 m.) to keep the airport in the running as a destination for international carriers the region would like to attract, including those from Europe. The longer surface will easily handle the larger passenger and cargo aircraft coming from longer distances. Space has also been cleared for a parallel runway and a 5,000-ft. (1,524-m.) crosswind runway.
The terminal design accommodates easy expansion as passenger volume and the number of carriers grows in the future. For comparison's sake, the current airport handles about 380,000 passengers annually. Joseph K. Tannehill, Sr., Board Chairman of the Airport Authority, says that number will jump to between 800,000 and 1 million within 12 months of the new airport commencing operations.
Cargo activity at the new facility is no less important, and airport planners see a key role for the airport in that arena.
Airport City Ahead
The new airport taking shape in the middle of the St. Joe timber forest between Interstate 10 and the Gulf of Mexico's West Bay is about more than just replacing a 61-year-old airfield with no room to grow. To many in the region, the new Panama City-Bay County International Airport (visit www.newpcairport.com
for updates on construction progress and related news) is an opportunity for northwest Florida to realize its potential for economic development beyond tourism and the aerospace-and-defense sector, both of which are and will continue to be important economic drivers.
In addition to on-airport sites ideally suited for aviation-related companies, the West Bay Sector Plan includes 37 million sq. ft. (3.4 million sq. m.) of space for commercial and industrial users seeking close proximity to the airport but not needing to be on the property.
"We're strategically located for some strong cargo and industrial distribution activity," says Tannehill. "There's really nothing much for that between Pensacola and Jacksonville." That is especially true if you add proximity to I-10, access to extensive rail infrastructure and two nearby ports – Port Panama City, specializing in bulk shipping, and a port operated by the St. Joe Co. that will soon see increased activity.
The West Bay Sector Plan calls for smart development of areas where hotels and restaurants will be built in order to avoid urban sprawl along the roadways. Residential development, too, is planned for locations away from the airport to the east and the west. This will leave flights traveling north and south in and out of the airport flying over the preservation area to the south or St. Joe timberland to the north.
Industrial sites on the airport property will be fully permitted and shovel-ready by the end of 2009. This past winter, the airport authority was collecting statements of qualifications from developers seeking the assignment of master developer of the 1,423 acres (576 hectares) of land designated for industrial use.
All of which points to the emergence of a new airport city, if the stars stay aligned and the economy doesn't cause real or potential investors to shelve plans they have in mind for the area. In fact, airport city and "aerotropolis" expert Dr. Jack Kasarda of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the Univ. of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is consulting on the project and even sees a more important role for the Panama City-Bay County International Airport further into the future when it could be serving as a key international transport and commercial hub for all of northern Florida and the deep Southeast. But that's not a sure thing just yet.
The Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies opened its new 103,000-sq.-ft. (9,600-sq.m.) headquarters on Jan. 31st in the Florida Center for Innovation at Tradition research campus in Port St. Lucie. Seven principal researchers and 30 support staff work there at present, but the Institute will eventually employ 200.
The 16-county Florida's Great Northwest region is served by four commercial airports, two of which have changed their name recently to pre-empt the Bay County airport's claim to being northwest Florida's true regional airport. The former Oscaloosa County Regional Airport serving the Ft. Walton Beach area is now the Northwest Florida Regional Airport, and the Pensacola Regional Airport is now the Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport. The Tallahassee airport already has "Regional" in its name.
The Panama City and Bay County players are well aware of the other airports' recent re-branding moves: "They're efforts to compete in advance with our new airport, but we're not going to be a regional airport – we are an international airport," says Bill Cramer, vice chairman of the Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority. "It's an understandable reaction on their part, and I'd be doing the same thing in their shoes. But we have unparalleled assets in the West Bay Sector Plan, including the 10,000-foot runway and the 4,000 acres. There is unlimited room for expansion, which the other airports don't have, and 1,500 acres [607 hectares] of land surrounding the airport that in the first phase of the project will be available for development, which the others don't have. Real estate right on the flight line is very rare and expensive, and we have a clean slate there. Our competitive advantages are things the other airports should rightly be concerned about."
Still another advantage in the works is a possible branch of a new Advanced Technology Center, which would occupy a site at the new airport; the 100,000-sq.-ft. (93,000-sq.-m.) main center will be on the campus of Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City. Though plans are preliminary at this time, an airport location would give aviation-related and other businesses a nearby work-force-training facility they would not have to build themselves.
But are these apparent competitive advantages enough to get the Bay County players' aspirations airborne?
"Politically, it will be difficult, but certainly not impossible," says Dr. Kasarda. "All the communities have to get together and decide whether they want a major regional airport that can continue to grow for the next 50 years, or do they want to stay with their local airports that exist now with minimal service and constraints on future development?"
All four northwest Florida airports are competing vigorously for new or expanded air service. Southwest Airlines and Canada's WestJet are among the carriers exploring new service in the region. Neither currently serves northwest Florida, but both are eager to enter the market. At press time, the finishing touches were being applied to a new branding campaign for the Panama City/Bay County area known simply as "The Beach," which brand developers believe will resonate with traditional visitors to the area from air-travel distances in the Southeast and elsewhere.
The Port of Panama City, Fla., has a logistics edge over other eastern U.S. ports in that it is the closest major port by sea to the Panama Canal and is farther north and therefore closer to interior U.S. cities than Miami's port, which is comparable in distance to the Canal.
But that effort, too, will compete with "Florida's Emerald Coast" used by the Ft. Walton Beach area.
As passenger-traffic scenarios play themselves out once service begins at the new airport, the cargo side of the equation will face less competition in the region. Cargo, after all, is indifferent to beach proximity, no matter how fine and inviting the sand may be on Florida's upper Gulf Coast. But cargo operators are interested in logistics and their related costs. Economic developers and the airport authority, therefore, are reminding those players that the Panama City port, coupled with the new, growth-unrestricted airport, is a powerful combination. Panama City is the closest port to the western coast of South America and to the Panama Canal, giving sea-born cargo a shorter route to the U.S. mainland.
In December 2008, St. Joe Co. signed a long-term lease agreement with the Port Authority of Port St. Joe for a 63-acre (25.5-hectare) site on St. Joseph Bay to be combined with 68 acres (27.5 hectares) of contiguous port-owned property, setting the stage for development of a deepwater seaport at the site. The port had been closed since 1998. The company also signed a three-year lease with the Port Authority for a 20-acre (8-hectare) site with a 1,000-ft. (305-m.) bulkhead that will allow it to start operations as the larger site is permitted.
Spiffing Up the Work Force
Meanwhile, efforts to bolster the region's work force to better equip the area for hosting the industry sectors it's targeting are as frenetic outside the airport site as the construction activity is at the airport site. And the two agendas are intricately entwined.
"We've had discussions with potential concerns interested in the airport, and their key concern is work-force development," says Cramer. "They like everything about the airport – the location and lots of room to grow. The question is whether we'll be able to obtain the well-trained, well-qualified workers. Our advanced technology center is designed to do just that."
So is a US$86,000 work-force-training grant from Florida's Great Northwest awarded in February to Gulf Coast Community College, which will match the grant with $108,581 of its own funds to develop education of high-tech training programs in critical industry sectors. The grant is part of a U.S. Dept. of Labor WIRED (Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development) grant the regional economic development group is administering and awarding to five northwest Florida training providers, each of which is providing matching funds, under its Workforce Innovation II program.
The technology-related clusters that will benefit directly from the new programs at Gulf Coast Community College are aviation, aerospace, defense & national security; health science and human performance enhancement; renewable energy and environment; transportation & logistics services; and the two critical support industries of information technology services and research & engineering.
The importance of information technology services and research and engineering to the region cannot be overemphasized, so they are a critical recipient of program resources. In fact, these disciplines emerged through follow-up analysis by SRI International in 2008 designed to refine its 2005 analysis that resulted in the area's strategic economic development plan. Electronics and composite materials development are just two sectors that benefit from these disciplines.
"Research and engineering and information technology were, in essence, hidden beneath more traditional sectors, but they were a key underpinning of the visible sectors, such as aerospace and defense," says Katy Vickland, with SRI International, who conducted the analysis. Vickland now serves at SRI in Roslyn, Va., as assistant director of federal business development.
Florida's Great Northwest, Inc., awarded an $86,087 work-force training grant in February to Gulf Coast Community College (GCCC), which will match the grant with $108,581 of its own funds to develop the information technology work force in Northwest Florida.
The grant is part of Florida's Workforce Innovation II Program and a component of Florida's Great Northwest's WIRED Northwest Florida Initiative.
"The ability to create innovative training programs to facilitate the development of one of the most critical Northwest Florida industries speaks volumes about Gulf Coast Community College's dedication to creating a sustainable workforce in Northwest Florida," said Al Wenstrand, president of Florida's Great Northwest (far left). Dr. Jim Kerley, president of GCCC, is shown at the far right with college and local economic development officials.
"We were excited to be finding hidden assets within the community. Strengths are often overlooked." It would be a mistake to overlook northwest Florida's strengths in the renewable energy sector, she adds.
"The concept behind the Workforce Innovation II Program is to address the mounting needs that exist for highly trained individuals in Northwest Florida's high-tech, knowledge-based industries," said Al Wenstrand, president of Florida's Great Northwest, at the grant presentation event in Panama City on February 13th. "Time and time again we hear businesses cite their number one concern as 'a skilled work force to meet their future employment requirements.' We believe that the organizations that are receiving the Workforce Innovation II grants will be able to implement innovative talent development programs to meet the region's training needs."
State, Private Sector Forge Training Agreement
Another work-force-related initiative got under way in December 2008 when Workforce Florida, Inc. (WFI), Gov. Charlie Crist's statewide board of public-private leaders charged with overseeing the state's work-force initiatives, signed an agreement with Gulf Coast Community College, the St. Joe Co. and Gulf Power Company to collaborate on meeting the worker training needs of the West Bay project.
The agreement calls for the partners to work together with other pertinent education and economic development entities to respond to the specific training needs of companies locating in West Bay. The agreement marks WFI's most substantial partnership to date with higher education entities in the area. Bringing state-level work-force resources to bear on the project represents a significant commitment on the part of the state to the success of the West Bay project and embedded airport as an economic engine on the local, regional and state levels.
"The essence of the memorandum of understanding is that we have all agreed on the importance of this asset and that we want to work together to take advantage of it," says Chris Hart IV, president and CEO of Workforce Florida. A federal Incumbent Worker Training Program for skills upgrade training and a similar training grant from the state are among the tools WFI will contribute, says Hart.
Gulf Coast Community College's new president, Dr. Jim Kerley, plays a central role in bringing his institution's strengths to bear in the region's unfolding economic development story, as the main training resource for new and existing industry.
"Economic development is the key component of our strategic plan – we must help with economic development initiatives and partnerships," he says. Among other things, Dr. Kerley is working with Florida State-Panama City's next-door campus to develop and expand curricula to provide programs in engineering and related technical programs and in renewable energy and other fields that will address work-force needs in the area. The college collaborates with the University of West Florida in Pensacola, as well.
"Our Advanced Technology Center will be one of the top such centers in the country – it's our goal to do that," says Kerley, referring to the 100,000-sq.-ft. (9,290-sq.-m.) facility now on the drawing board that will add an important competitive arrow to the area's quiver. Besides teaching space for new courses, training and continuing education, the center will feature ample, flexible space that can accommodate start-ups' unique space needs and the offices of multiple economic development entities. A fall 2011 opening for the approximately $33-million project is planned. "Economic development is at the center of that effort," says Kerley.
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