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Storms plunge Panhandle into tug of war for its soul

Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau

Monday, July 18, 2005

PENSACOLA — Florida's Great Northwest, a sort of Panhandle-wide chamber of commerce, started a marketing campaign this year to assuage the hurricane fears of businesses considering a move to the area.

The postcards, mailed to more than 600 major companies and corporate site-selection consultants, mixed upbeat forecasts with plays on corporate jargon to sell the area's strengths.

Chris Matula/The Post


Workers repair a beach house in Destin after half of it collapsed because of erosion Hurricane Dennis caused July 10. The area still is recovering from Ivan last year.

Chris Matula /The Post


A pickup lies nose-first in a break in a road at Alligator Point last week. About 10 homes were destroyed and the road was washed out.

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A picture of a parasailer bore the caption: "Frequent flyer."

A scene of people sunbathing on a beach read: "Employee turnover."

A shot of shrimp in a fish market said: "Prime rate."

But that campaign is on hold now that Hurricane Dennis has roared through the Gulf Coast.

"I don't think I'm going to send out the next couple," said Great Northwest Executive Director Al Wenstrand. "Let's get the Weather Channel away from us for a while, then we'll start up again."

The Panhandle has long been a Florida conundrum: an area with pristine beaches and a high quality of life mixed with all the core necessities of business that still somehow lags behind the rest of the state in terms of economic development.

Part of that, Panhandle officials say, is the fact that the area has depended too much on its beaches to generate money. Tourism in some counties is responsible for as much as 50 percent of the local economy, and that sector is the most vulnerable to hurricanes.

That has resulted in a slow, sometimes agonizing realization among Northwest Floridians that the area must "weatherproof the economy," says Gulf Power Economic Development Director John Hutchinson.

That prospect seems a distant one to Panhandle residents right now, as they recover from a third storm in 10 months. Instead they are comparing high-water lines from the floods resulting from Ivan and Dennis, refitting the blue tarps that covered their damaged roofs from Ivan and Tropical Storm Arlene and waiting for the air conditioning to come back on.

Some are even packing up and leaving their piece of paradise.

Those that remain carry on the debate of change, i.e. growth vs. status quo.

Florida House Speaker Allan Bense has seen enough from his home in Panama City to push for a repeal of the Panhandle's exemption from the state building code. That exemption from having to build new homes with hurricane shutters or impact-resistant glass has left homes there more vulnerable than in the rest of the state.

Hutchinson said such change also must be seen in the overall economic base of the Panhandle. He believes the area must aim for more stable, high-paying businesses that can sustain themselves, regardless of whether hurricanes batter the coast. There have been major strides forward in that arena, with medical and defense contractors increasingly entering the region.

But with every step forward, each passing hurricane seems to knock the area a step back.

At least three companies, one of which would have immediately become the largest medical technologies company in the region, decided against moving to Florida simply because of the hurricanes, Wenstrand said.

And with meteorological experts saying the increased storm activity is becoming more norm than anomaly, those companies may not be the last to flee Florida's storms.

"We're at a tipping point," said Ken Ford, a President Bush appointee to the National Science Board who runs the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola. "And tipping points don't always tip in the right direction."

Reliance on beaches

Enterprise Florida, a statewide agency responsible for pushing economic development, sums up the region like this:

"Florida's Great Northwest is filled with copious amounts of readily available land and cost effective utility and labor rates, making business operating costs more practical. Additionally, the area has the infrastructure necessary to support businesses, including Interstate 10 (running east-west across the entire region), 3 deep water seaports (2 of which are designated Foreign Trade Zones) and 4 commercial airports."

But economic leaders complain that local government officials have never taken advantage of those lures, instead falling back on the beaches to draw in dollars.

"When I first came to Pensacola 15 years ago, I heard a former city official saying he didn't want to attract a high-wage company because it would ruin the wage rates in the rest of the area," said Rick Harper, head of the University of West Florida's HAAS Center for Business Research and Economic Development.

Even today, many residents like the Panhandle just as it is.

While cleaning up debris from Hurricane Dennis last week, Pensacola Beach resident Alice Curtis said a booming economy would ruin what makes the area so desirable: its small-town charm.

"If you had all these people from God knows where coming in, you'd lose that," Curtis said.

Time for change

But others say it's time to change that mentality.

Just down the street from Curtis, retired Air Force master sergeant and electrical engineer James Little said it's impossible to expect the area to remain as it is forever.

"A lot of that talk is selfishness," Curtis said. "It's people saying, 'I found my place in the sun and I don't want anybody else to mess it up.' "

The no-growth talk is moot, too, Harper said, because stopping the influx of people is going to be impossible. With Baby Boomers headed toward retirement and many of those looking for places on a coastline to enjoy their final years, he said the Panhandle will become one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation during the next decade.

"You just can't go back to yesteryear of slow-paced life in Northwest Florida," Harper said. "So do we provide . . . for the right kind of growth, the right kind of businesses, or do we want to ignore those things and stick our heads in the sand?"

Ford, whose institute has brought in about 100 renowned scientists from around the world, said the area's inability to create a flourishing business climate has resulted in the loss of its best resource.

"Some places export ore. Some places export rice. We export people," Ford said.

John Dougherty, a computer science major at UWF, agrees.

"Most of us want to move away, because they don't have jobs like that around here," he said.

Adding to the need for higher-income jobs is the fact that, while Northwest Florida is getting caught up in the skyrocketing real estate prices that the rest of the state is seeing, the incomes of its residents are not keeping up.

"One of the biggest reasons that Northwest Florida was always so affordable is that we didn't earn the incomes to afford the high-priced properties," Harper said. "So that increase in property values is going to mean that employers are going to have to increase their workers' salaries. Otherwise, they won't be able to attract the workers that they need and we'll keep headed toward an affordable housing shortfall."

Health care, military

Aside from beaches, the major economic engines in the Panhandle are health care and the military.

Tourism is obviously threatened annually by hurricanes. And with the region's half dozen military bases facing cuts by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, Hutchinson said it only makes sense to insulate those economic drivers by surrounding them with private spinoffs.

That would bolster the strong health-care industry and further protect the military bases from closures or downsizings: places such as Ford's institute, which draws more than half of its $22 million in grants from the military, and the soon-to-be-completed Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze.

Jim Andrews has become something of a rock star in the medical field, treating pro athletes like Houston Astros All-Star Roger Clemens, North Palm Beach's Jack Nicklaus, Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.

Andrews has lent his name to a project that will combine surgery, rehabilitation and research in Gulf Breeze not only because it has the skilled people necessary to fill the 100 or so positions there but because it's a place where people are willing to spend a large portion of time in rehab.

"That was much more the way it was looked at, as opposed to 'Oh, no, there's a chance of hurricanes,' " Andrews spokesman Lanier Johnson said.

But those strides could continue being thwarted by each passing hurricane.

"We were in the midst of recruiting someone last week. Well . . .," said Ford, before explaining he hadn't heard back from the recruit.

When discussing the difficulty of recruiting people amid reports of natural disasters, Ford harkens back to his days running NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. There, as in the tornado-threatened plains and snowbound Northeast, people usually have been willing to deal with the risk if the location was worth the risk.

"We need to be in the same situation here where people say, 'Yes, a hurricane will happen eventually here someday and it's going to cause some strife in my life. But this place is special enough and good enough that it's worth it to me.' "

But some worry that the frequency of hurricanes will make such decisions impossible.

Boyd Consulting is a site selection consulting company that has placed corporate headquarters in several places in Florida and throughout the country. John Boyd Jr. said the Florida Panhandle has always been a favorite place, but selling the region has become a chore.

"With the 24-hour news cycle, you can't escape the hurricanes," Boyd said from his Princeton, N.J., office. "It's the focal point of three days of news coverage. I'm not saying that overblows the harm that these hurricanes cause, but every executive from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, to Albuquerque, N.M., is intimately familiar with these storms. We literally know them by name.

"What's the next one? Emily?"

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