For those of us lucky enough to live in Northwest Florida, we know how blessed we are to be here, and about all of the unique opportunities our region has to offer. But, do outsiders feel the same way about this beautiful part of the country?

More specifically, do potential businesses feel this way? Gulf Power invited four leading site selection consultants to this year’s Gulf Power Economic Symposium to ask them this very important question.

The symposium’s theme this year was Think Big and the consultants participated in a panel discussion entitled, “Our Regional Competitiveness – The Site Consultants’ Perspective.” Moderated by Bill Johnson, Florida’s Secretary of Commerce and the President/CEO of Enterprise Florida Inc., the panelists provided their candid insight regarding our region’s competitiveness for the types of expansion and relocation projects local economic development representatives are targeting.

Think-Big-2015-Economic-Symposium-68Participating consultants included Amy Gerber, JLL Atlanta; Jeff Pappas, CRESA Dallas; Woody Hydrick, Global Location Solutions; and Derith Jarvis, MOHR Partners.

Some of Northwest Florida’s strengths immediately recognized by the consultants included our already well-known assets — our strong military presence, skilled workforce and existing talent base, as well as the region’s ability to attract new talent because of the quality of life.

However, the panelists noted that there is still work to be done in some areas.  For example, even though the region may have a skilled workforce, we need to work on quantifying what this means. We have a training pipeline for key industries, but that means nothing until we are able to share measurable data with potential new businesses and industries — how many students are receiving their degrees or certifications?  How many are in target training pipelines?

The perception of Northwest Florida’s workforce was discussed as well, including the more negative perceptions that, outside of the military, our region has an aging workforce, and that our workforce can be transient because of our thriving tourism industry.

Another issue identified as a weakness was Florida’s tax structure for manufacturing and fabrication. Amy Gerber with JLL, Atlanta suggested that the current tax structure is a major disincentive for manufacturers who ship products to other states for installation and final assembly.

Other areas the experts suggested the region focus on included more building space for manufacturing and distribution, offering more flexible lease agreements as well as more contract employees.

The site consultants were also asked to host a post-symposium session for a smaller group of symposium attendees. Our region’s workforce and economic development professionals were provided with topical presentations on “Secrets to Winning Projects” and “Knowing your Numbers.” Using crowd-sourcing technology, the consultants were able to identify the top four “pain points,” or challenges that our region’s economic developers face. These “pain points” were the topics for four tabletop discussion groups facilitated by the site consultants. The topics identified were: Site and Building Vulnerabilities, Marketing to Site Consultants, Creative Uses of Incentives and Workforce Issues.

The presentations and tabletop discussions provided vital and actionable direction for each attendee to help make our local and regional workforce and economic development efforts more effective.

“This is the most useful event that I’ve attended,” said Ted Everett from the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, the lead economic development agency for the county.

A key takeaway from the consultants was their advice of making sure that as a region we’re taking a close look at the reasons why companies don’t choose to invest or locate in Northwest Florida and then using any available resources to help fill those gaps.

“If Northwest Florida is going to think big, we can’t just focus on the positives,” said Rick Byars, Gulf Power Community and Economic Development Manager.”  We have to take a close look at our weaknesses and areas of opportunity, and work together to make our region stand out to site selectors and businesses across the country and the world.”

The site selectors panel and post-symposium event were just two of the highlights from the 2015 Gulf Power Economic Symposium.