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Stan Connally (left), Chairman, President and CEO of  Gulf Power Stan Connally and Florida Gov. Rick Scott talk with media at the Gulf Power Economic Symposium in Panama City Beach.

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida – Engage. Connect. Grow.

Those three words were repeated more than once as Gulf Power kicked off the 20th Annual Economic Symposium Oct. 3 at the Sheraton Bay Point Resort in Panama City Beach.

Stan Connally, Chairman, President and CEO of Gulf Power, welcomed more than 500 business and community leaders who traveled from around the region and state to be part of the highly anticipated event focusing on Northwest Florida’s economic future.

“We started this 20 years ago with a handful of business leaders with a vision to connect businesses together to grow our economy in Northwest Florida,” said Connally. “Today we speak with one voice to optimize the region as we grow together with a broader and more inclusive group.”

Connally pointed out to the group that the population has grown in region by 25 percent to more than 1 million since 1996. Northwest Florida, he said, is expected to need 101,000 jobs by 2030 just to keep up with the upward trend.

“We need to have a highly developed and highly educated workforce,” he said. “Right now 15 percent of the region lives in poverty and 25 percent of our students either graduate late from high school or don’t finish at all. So every job matters as we get ready for the future growth of our region.”

Agreeing with Connally, was Governor Rick Scott, who ran for election in 2010 on the platform of job creation in Florida. The state, which once was known in the early 2000s as the “sunset” state instead of the “sunshine” state due to a loss of jobs he said, has made a dramatic change in an environment of job creation.

“We lost more than 800,000 jobs but have made a dramatic shift in job growth,” Scott told attendees. “Today our state has 3.2 percent job growth compared to 1.4 percent nationwide. No state is doing what we’re doing. It’s not government that’s doing this, it’s businesses. While government can create the environment, it’s businesses that are creating the jobs.”

Gov. Scott pointed out Eastern Shipbuilding Group, one business in the Panama City area as an example of bringing job growth and expansion to Northwest Florida. The family-held shipbuilding company recently landed a $10.5 billion contract — the largest in U.S. Coast Guard history — to build the first series of nine offshore patrol cutters, topping the biggest and best boatyards in the country in the process.

“This is a big win for Panama City, Northwest Florida and the state,” said Scott. “This contract brings up to 1,000 new jobs. Every company we can get to move here, every company we can get to expand here, that is one more opportunity for families.”

The Economic Symposium is the one of the largest two-day event in Northwest Florida where leaders from the community come together to discuss how to advance and better leverage the region’s assets. This year, the theme is “Engage. Connect. Grow.” with an emphasis on bringing in not just the “usual suspects” economic development, such as Chamber of Commerce members, but also non-profits and faith-based groups.

Other scheduled speakers today include branding expert Daymond John, founder and CEO of FUBU and star of ABC’s Shark Tank; and Dr. Ken Ford, founder and CEO of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, who will moderate a panel discussing Leveraging Federal Investments for Economic Growth in the region. Also scheduled to speak is Kim Wilmes, president & CEO of Florida’s Great Northwest, who will lead an interactive session on Northwest Florida’s strategy for the future.

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