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YEAR IN REVIEW: Economic pieces fall into place for Bay 2017


BAY COUNTY — If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2018, international aerospace manufacturing company GKN Aerospace will have brought 100 new, high-paying jobs to the region.


In 2019, Eastern Shipbuilding will begin construction on the first of nine Coast Guard offshore patrol cutters, anticipated to bring more than a thousand jobs to the area when all is said and done.


In 2020, the size of Tyndall Air Force Base will increase by almost a third, with 1,600 new airmen to support the MQ-9 Reaper wing program, assuming the base passes a mandatory environmental study.


And all of these projects are expected to bring in spin-off businesses that will bring even more jobs to the area.


“These kinds of initiatives are game-changers,” said Bay County Economic Development Alliance President Becca Hardin. “It’s an anomaly to have three projects like this at once. People work their whole careers and don’t have one project. These projects are life-changing. They are going to put a lot of people to work.”


This past year was the economic boom Bay County officials have been working toward for a long time. GKN’s move to a new facility in Panama City Beach was announced in February. In May, Legislation to start spending oil spill money through Triumph Gulf Coast was passed. The Reaper wing program was announced in November. The Eastern Shipbuilding Coast Guard project, announced in September 2016, continued to bring attention to the region. And some of the bigger gambles public officials had taken over the years, such as passing the half-cent sales tax and moving the airport, started to pay off.


 “People fought and fought against the airport,” said Bay County Chamber of Commerce President Carol Roberts. “And we warned people they wouldn’t see the benefits immediately. When the EDA landed the GKN project, it really put us on the map for aviation. We knew the 10,000-foot runway would not sit out there and go unnoticed.”


And it didn’t. The airport was key in bringing GKN to the region, and Hardin said the aerospace giant already is helping recruit some of its suppliers to the region. She said more announcements likely are coming in 2018.


“When I first got here three years ago, our project activity was 7 to 10 in any given month,” Hardin said. “Now it’s up to around 30. I can’t fit them on the same page anymore.”


Maintaining the momentum is one of the region’s biggest pushes heading into the new year.


“A number of things that we worked on for quite some time with a lot of stakeholders — (Florida State University Panama City), EDA, the municipalities — came together,” County Manager Bob Majka said. “We have to continue to add momentum to it. This is by no means the end. No one’s throwing a parade.”


Helping to keep the region moving forward is the Triumph legislation. While the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill temporarily hurt the region’s economy, particularly on Panama City Beach, the settlement funds from the accident now give area leaders a carrot to help entice businesses to the region and build up the necessary workforce and infrastructure.


“Triumph can help support tremendous economic growth,” Hardin said. “To be successful, you have to bring in new businesses and help successful businesses grow. To do that you have to have infrastructure, and Triumph helps do that.”


In its lifetime, Triumph will bring $1.5 billion to the Panhandle in the coming years for projects that boost the local economy and tourism. Many of the big ticket Triumph applications this year from Bay County are directly tied to the growth the region has seen. Eastern Shipbuilding applied for $20 million to help pay for manufacturing the Coast Guard patrol cutters. To build the workforce for these new projects, Gulf Coast State College has asked for $25.6 million for the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Institute, while Bay High School similarly asked for $20 million for a Science, Technology, Engineering Training Center.


The Triumph board is expected to started picking projects to fund in 2018.


The biggest opportunity, and challenge, will be turning the financial success into improved quality of life.


While the overall unemployment rate in the county is low at 3.8 percent, many of the jobs are low-paying, and there are pockets of the community where unemployment is much higher. More than half of Bay District Schools — 26 campuses — are considered low-income. And elected officials regularly talk about how to combat “brain drain,” when the area’s young people leave for better paying jobs elsewhere.


These new jobs moving into the area are, perhaps, the region’s best chance to get ahead.


“From my perspective, I think (improving quality of life) is the largest single challenge,” Majka said, adding government is only a part of that equation. Stakeholders around the county he said are “trying to create an opportunity for local people to get higher paying jobs.”


The jobs are key. When Eastern Shipbuilding’s contract was announced in 2016, some developers with land in the area started talking about resuming projects that had stalled during the recession. Callaway and Parker officials are hopeful the Reaper program will bring a similar boost.


“When people have jobs, it’s a domino effect of the dollar,” Roberts said. “They buy new homes and vehicles.”


Roberts said it might take some time, but with this year’s successes the future for the region is “unbelievable.”


Hardin agreed.


“The next five or 10 years, Bay County is riding a great wave,” Hardin said, adding interest in the region from businesses already has gone up exponentially. “It’s fun to win. You can feel the energy.”


The News Herald’s John Henderson contributed to this report.


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