NICEVILLE — An unprecedented effort to bring 13 Northwest Florida counties together to assess collective economic development needs and act in unison to address them celebrated its six-month anniversary Friday.
Leaders of the Northwest Florida Forward movement gathered at the Costa Leadership Institute on the Northwest Florida State College campus to applaud not only the survival of their enterprise, but its success and continued momentum.
“I think we’re differentiating ourselves from others in the state. Nowhere else in the state have 13 counties come together like this. We’re on the cusp of showing Northwest Florida to be the most unified region it can be,” said Stan Connally, the president and CEO of Gulf Power Co.
When Northwest Florida Forward was created six months ago, five committees were created to study economic development needs. On Friday the chairs of those committees — Talent, Business Vitality, Infrastructure, Quality of Place and Entrepreneurship and Innovation — told a standing-room-only crowd what they’d learned and where they were going with the knowledge they’d gained.
Meeting at regional and county levels, Infrastructure committee members learned that transportation, and specifically creating arterial routes to enhance the flow of transportation, was the No. 1 concern of Panhandle residents, Austin Mount, executive director of the West Florida Regional Planning Council, reported.
“There are so many problems we have that we need to be looking at,” he said.
He mentioned traffic congestion in and around Crestview i as an example of a transportation nightmare.
Mount acknowledged that the state Department of Transportation is limited in what it can do to fund fixes for the myriad of transportation issues. He suggested making a case for some portion of the $1.2 billion coming to the region from BP through Triumph Gulf Coast being put toward road work.
“Transportation has us in a stranglehold,” he said.
The Talent Committee, charged with linking “talent assets” to key industries and finding ways to establish a dynamic regional workforce, reported its members had looked to Georgia and Alabama for state models that could help develop a Northwest Florida workforce training system.
Quality of Place Committee Co-chair Richard Fetchick suggested “vibrant downtowns” as key to making Northwest Florida stand out as a region. With Seaside, where “The Truman Show” was filmed, as an obvious example of what a community can do to draw in visitors.
Committee members said improving living conditions in Sylvania Heights, a historically downtrodden community of 400 near Fort Walton Beach, had become a focus.
Identifying struggling businesses considering downsizing or relocating is one key focus of the Business Vitality Committee, according to co-chairs Jennifer Conoley and Scarlett Phaneuf. They also suggested creating a format by which government processes are streamlined to help businesses move quickly to open, expand or relocate in Northwest Florida.
The Business Vitality Committee members have also pledged to support the growth and development of the region’s largest industry clusters.
The goal of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Committee is to “foster robust entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems to drive future economic growth.” Members told those gathered Friday that they are moving forward to achieve that goal by cataloging “assets” using an online tool.
Committee members also want to further entrepreneurial programs through curriculum development in schools and to promote rural entrepreneurship.
Kim Wilmes, the president and CEO of Florida’s Great Northwest, cheered the work of the committees for providing “a blueprint” for creating a diverse and vibrant regional economy, a news release published after the event said.
“Since this initiative began, the hard work of numerous leaders across the region has brought collaborative ideas to the forefront,” Wilmes said in the release. “Our goal over the past six months has been to work together — to work as one — and start guiding Northwest Florida to the best use of its existing assets and resources. We all know transformation is a gradual process, but the past six months have provided a tremendous start.”