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Swinging for a Home Run


PANAMA CITY — Bay County Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Neal Wade likes to use sports analogies.

He noted there were a number of variables that add up to winning and losing. The more swings at the ball, the more chances for a home run.

And that is what he is doing.

He is taking his cuts and hoping to knock one out of the park by bringing in a big player in the business community to Bay County.

“My understanding is there are a lot of companies that are sitting on cash and should be in an expansion mode but are waiting to see what is going to happen in the election,” Wade said.

Companies are waiting to see what taxes and health care costs will look like before they start “pulling the trigger on expansion,” Wade said.

One of the big catches he’s hoping to snag is a “major” aerospace company for a spot by the new airport in West Bay. He said with assets like the Air Force and Navy bases nearby and major defense contractors in the area, the West Bay area is ideal for an aerospace company to open up a new facility.

He wouldn’t say which company he’s attempting to lure.

“We believe this will be a breakout year especially in aerospace, aviation and defense,” said Wade during an interview inside the conference room of the EDA office on Grace Avenue.

He said a lot of companies are waiting to see how the election turns out.

“I think it is both what happens in the Congress and what happens in the White House in terms of which way the country is going to go,” he said. “You are going to find these companies are going to be following this election very closely.”

Wade said business leaders will be looking at whether jobs will be created through “free enterprise” or through “growth of government.”

“What is going to be the pathway for job growth in the United States?” he asked.

He said what happens to the country’s budget will have an impact on the military. He also said he expects some emerging markets to continue expanding.

“On the commercial side you have China, India, you’ve got Brazil and areas like that are just growing,” Wade said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis released the advance estimate of the gross national product (GNP) for the fourth quarter of 2011.

Real GDP rose 2.8 percent at an annual rate, up from 1.8 percent in the third quarter. Real GDP for 2011 overall grew 1.7 percent. The increase in real GDP reflected growth across several key economic sectors. Real exports of goods and services increased 4.7 percent in the fourth quarter, the same increase as in the third.

With that news, Wade also said he thinks more companies will feel the confidence to expand.

“I think we will begin to see more companies begin to look at expansion,” Wade said. “And it is about confidence.”

One of the hurdles Florida must clear is the impression that the state is overregulated, Wade said.

“What you are dealing with is a reputation among decision makers about where plants are going to go,” he continued.

Wade said he understands the need to protect the environment but said other states have done it without inhibiting business expansion.

“I think that if you make sure you are protecting the public and the environment, find a way to streamline the process, so that you can get approvals and be competitive in the southeast,” Wade said. “Other states are beating us at that.”

Wade noted that Gov. Rick Scott has been trying to streamline the permit process.

Wade, who said there are about four or five companies he is currently trying to lure here, said Bay County has an enormous amount of potential.

“One of the reasons I took this job is that I believe Bay County is in a very good position to be the next growth area in Northwest Florida,” he said.

Wade was selected from a pool of 35 initial applicants that was whittled down to seven through the selection process. Wade has committed to the job for three years and will earn a salary of $180,000, an increase from Watermeier’s $160,000.

Neal Wade is the former senior vice president of economic development for the St. Joe Co.

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