On the Road: Between the Pines In Florida’s Great Northwest

Tags: Economic Development

Panama City, Fla., is primed for economic prosperity, thanks to the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport and a local aerospace and defense research and development facility.

Destination: Panama City, Fla.

Location: Panama City, the county seat and principal municipality of Bay County, is located in the middle of Florida’s panhandle, along the Gulf of Mexico.

Population: Panama City (37,408), Bay County (169,562)

Distance from Inbound Logistics HQ: 1,225 miles

 

Sugar sand beaches and emerald green waters have made Bay County, Fla., a Spring Break mecca. But the area’s real gem is nestled deep within the pine.

When commercial land developer The St. Joe Company invited me on a November 2010 tour of the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport and area businesses I was mildly intrigued, if suspicious.

Full disclosure: I’m not a beachcomber. Any sight of sand or smell of saltwater triggers a Pavlovian response best characterized by a Scooby-Doo cartoon character running from a ghost. Zoinks!

Visiting Panama City in the quiet cool of autumn sounded a little different. And this trip dug deep, beneath the sand and beyond my superficial biases. It uncovered a hidden treasure.

Following Footprints From the Sand

There’s more to northwest Florida than surf, sand, and sun. In fact, one of the most striking characteristics is its dense woodland. The area’s virgin and planted timber features mostly pine: slash, longleaf, shortleaf, loblolly, with some nosy scrub oak mingling between. Driving east and looking left along Route 30 toward Panama City, it’s hard not to notice the dense swath of pine forest lying between the Gulf Coast and the Intracoastal Waterway, then north to I-10 and beyond.

The beaches are Florida’s calling card, and tourism has been a great economic escape for the fat part of the panhandle that is still largely rural and undeveloped. But the timber industry remains a well-rooted trade.

The St. Joe Company, which has become the primary kindler of commercial real estate and economic development in the area, grew out of the DuPont family’s stake in the lumber and paper milling industry during the Great Depression. In much the same way Henry Ford assembled a family of integrated industrial spokes around the automobile hub, The St. Joe Paper Company became a forestry, railroad, and real estate conglomerate as it acquired vast tracts of land across the state.

Today, the St. Joe Company has largely divested its timber business— as its name change suggests— with a primary focus on preserving and developing about 600,000 acres of land across the state. The company still has an interest in transportation and commerce, albeit from an entirely new perspective.

The future promise of Panama City and Bay County lies, naturally, within a dense stand of pine. Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport officially opened for business on May 23, 2010, becoming the first greenfield airport in the country post-Sept. 11, and the first international airport to debut since Denver International Airport in the early 1990s.

In 1998, St. Joe gifted 4,000 acres of land to relocate and develop a new hub to replace the aging Panama City-Bay County International Airport. It took more than one decade of legal wrangling and environmental impact studies, then two years of construction, to complete the project. Some locals viewed the developer’s role in the new airport as a conflict of interest. St. Joe does have an important stake in making the area more accessible to travelers and businesses alike— as do residents who depend on the economic inflows and jobs that follow.

The developer has grand plans for the 78,000 acres surrounding the airport— an area slightly larger than Washington, D.C. The West Bay Sector Plan includes commercial, office, retail, hotel/resort, and residential development adjacent to the airport, featuring 300 acres for industrial and warehousing activity and another 600 acres for manufacturing and distribution; 34,000 acres have been set aside as an environmental preserve.

St. Joe’s investment in this project offers a microcosm of what local authorities and businesses hope will become a model for greater economic diversity in the area— a balanced approach to growing tourism, attracting home ownership, and creating more jobs through industrial and commercial development. At the center of this 50-year controlled plan is Florida Beaches Airport.

Exploring a Green Airport

Touring the airport terminal, it’s hard not to marvel at its newness: flat-screen TVs, ample seating, fresh blue paint, an airy, high-ceilinged baggage terminal with clerestory lighting. Green innovations and energy efficiencies are equally transparent inside and out. But that’s just a surface perspective.

A privileged look behind the check-in counter, into the airport’s labyrinthine baggage conveyance system and TSA inspection facilities, reveals a state-of-the-art nerve center. Walking among tiered conveyors that inspect, sort, and divert baggage through a series of automated checkpoints has the look and feel, whirs and whistles, of a Rube Goldberg-engineered warehouse sortation system that got lost at baggage claim.

At 148 feet above, still tethered to terra firma, a 360-degree panorama of the airport property presents another perspective. From the air traffic control tower, you see nothing but pine for miles around. The airport has plans to build out the 4,000 acres it currently occupies, including 1,400 acres of aviation-related, through-the-fence industrial space that is part of the West Bay Sector Plan.

Currently, Florida Beaches Airport is nothing more than a tourist hub, served by Delta and Southwest, and some charter businesses. Plans are in the works to add another crosswind runway as a complement to the featured 10,000-foot ribbon of tarmac. Shovel-ready warehousing or distribution space is not available yet and freight operations are still to come.

But talking with local economic development officials and area businesses, you quickly understand the importance of transportation accessibility as a means for further growth— something that is often taken for granted in more populated areas with competing airports.

“It’s an airport that can grow up with the community,” says Janet Watermeier, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance. With new direct Southwest service to Washington, “companies can compete for projects simply by getting to DC,” she adds.

This convenience is important for another reason. Back up in the tower, listening to a heavily tattooed air traffic controller, a former U.S. Navy pilot, talk about his past career and current occupation, you quickly gain appreciation for another important institution that calls Bay County home.

Drafting New Logistics Talent

The U.S. military presence in Northwest Florida is pervasive, with seven bases located in the surrounding region. The largest employer in Bay County is the U.S. Navy; government industry (18.3 percent) is second only to trade, transportation, and utilities (18.7 percent) among top industry jobs outside of agriculture.

The United States Naval Support Activity Panama City is a naval base located on 648 acres of waterfront property along St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in Panama City Beach. It’s the Navy’s premier diving and salvage research, development, testing, and training site. Driving past the well-gated citadel, “Go Navy” flags flutter in the wind.

Twelve miles east of Panama City, Tyndall Air Force Base covers about 30,000 acres and operates three runways. The facility is home to 76 F-15 Eagles, eight F/A-22 Raptors, and two E-94 aircraft.

By air and by sea, economic flows and job growth in and around Panama City are largely tied to the Department of Defense (DoD) and other military-related activity. Much of the local industry focuses on aerospace and defense, research and development, creating a cluster-busting wealth of new business opportunities.

As an example, Applied Research Associates (ARA), an Albuquerque-based company that provides innovative solutions to technical problems in science and engineering, operates a facility in Panama City. ARA is a working laboratory that bids out contracts for projects with the DoD, Homeland Security, and transportation authorities. Employees enjoy what they do; and looking out the office window isn’t half bad either.

The company’s office is located in an old cannery on the water. Approaching the building at lunchtime, pelicans dive-bomb for fish, while in the distance a foghorn blows for no apparent reason.

Inside ARA’s remodeled cannery, staffers are busy working on various experimental projects. Among other things, scientists and engineers are converting algae oil into a fuel source for the military; and tinkering with a Field Intravenous Fluid Reconstitution program that saves lives by filling intravenous bags as needed at battlefield hospitals. The device manufactures IV fluids just in time, in lieu of shipping pre-packaged medicines into the field.

This is merely a petri-dish perspective of the activities taking place at ARA. But the company’s business approach is fairly standard.

“We have a demand and an idea,” explains Steve Baxter, a senior engineer for ARA. “We perform a benchtop experiment to test an idea and its merit; then scale technology up to a pilot phase.” From there, executable models and patents are pushed along to outside contractors for production.

Much of what ARA is researching and developing for the military has applications for the private sector as well— a target market the company is gradually moving toward. The maturation of companies such as ARA bodes well for further economic development growth throughout Bay County.

Engineering and R&D activity attracts manufacturing and creates jobs. More telling, this convergence of military expertise and private sector demand for logistics and transportation talent offers a diverse and highly skilled workforce for an area that’s looking to attract like-minded business.

Walking along the beach just after dawn on a bright and blue autumn morning, I discover a glimmering reason why Bay County is such a draw. Florida’s panhandle is a beautiful place to be, calm and serene. A rainbow of colors reflected in the water at sunrise and sunset compete with the pearl whites and emerald greens that dominate the day.

For many economic development authorities around the country, playing the quality-of-life card can be the hardest part of attracting interest and investment. In Panama City, it’s a given. The new airport provides a more attractive and convenient means to lure tourists and businesses to the Emerald Coast.

Still, one challenge resort areas face is creating a diverse economic environment where transient tourism and well-rooted industries bond. It’s a tricky proposition. You need critical mass in terms of new jobs, year-round home ownership, transportation infrastructure, and education.

Northwest Florida possesses many of these attributes and is working to fill in some of the gaps. Road connectivity is a concern and the transportation and logistics piece south of I-10 remains nebulous. But the area also holds a wild card. The U.S. military presence is a major incentive, attracting support industries while providing a skilled labor pool brimming with potential.

Sitting in St. Joe’s map room at the end of the press trip, listening to company executives share their vision for the future, I feel like I’m being briefed for a clandestine mission. In some ways, I am. But it’s not a secret.

Bay County’s directive is fast gaining currency among local businesses. The next step is convincing the masses. My guess is it won’t be a tough sell.