The one that's knocking
By Charlotte Crane
December 2014
...Bruce McCormack, a Navy veteran and quarter-century defense contractor,
opened his company’s doors in June at Franklin County’s tiny Carrabelle, a location
just right, he says – with lots of geography and small demographics, amid the dense
forests and waterways of the Apalachicola River Basin and along the regionally
dubbed Forgotten Coast.
...The timing also would seem right.
...“In 2012, everyone wanted to start using unmanned vehicles,” says McCormack.
His company, Gulf Unmanned Systems Center, is designed to serve civilian, military
and law enforcement customers with unmanned systems that can look below
waterway surfaces, probe the ocean depths and do aerial reconnaissance. The 15-
employee business operates from a 14,000-square-foot headquarters and 64,800-
square-foot Operations Center with adjacent runway.
...Gulf USC is among the few companies in Northwest Florida’s smaller, rural counties
with aviation-related activities. While direct aerospace industry recruiting is rare in
these counties, aerospace is nevertheless a key element of economic conversations,
whether it’s a matter of gauging industrial support opportunities, training
manufacturing workers or charting logistics needs.
...The $600 million Airbus plant being built in Mobile, Ala., is one reason for the
aerospace talk. True, aviation has been a part of the region’s economy for years, but
Airbus has placed the region on the world stage.
...To the northwest of Carrabelle in Jackson County, the 10-employee CHR
International of Marianna has carved its own niche. It makes and sells $133,400 kits
for its two-seat Safari helicopter. The company also markets and upgrades existing
Safaris and assists kit buyers with assembly. They're classified by U.S. regulators as
experimental and not for commercial use. CHR also sells ready-made Safaris through
dealers in New Zealand, Brazil, Russia, Germany, France and Taiwan.
...“We have our customers almost everywhere in the world,’’ says Delane Baker, who
with her husband, Bobby, bought the business in 2009 from its Canadian founders.
Sales are up 10-15 percent from a year ago.
...Why Marianna? “Wonderful climate, low cost-of-living and an educated work force
because of the proximity to military bases which are aviation-focused … schools are
turning out the mechanics.’’
...When asked about interest in recruiting prime aerospace industries, economic
developers in the near-dozen Northwest Florida smaller counties give such efforts
little chance of success, due to stiff competition and their focus on mainstays, such
as agriculture, tourism and consumer businesses.
...“We pursue these companies, but locations closer to our region’s military
installations, such as Tyndall and Eglin, are saturated with retirees and former Air
Force contract employees that attract the aerospace businesses,’’ says Roy Baker,
financial services manager for the Jackson County Development Council. Economic
development executives in nearby Calhoun, Washington and Liberty counties
likewise say they aren’t recruiting in aerospace.
...But Larry Sassano, president of the 16-county Florida’s Great Northwest, sees
aerospace as the one knocking.
...“There is opportunity and focus in the aerospace field now, even among rural
counties. Among prospects for startups and development in Northwest Florida, 60
percent are focusing on aerospace,” he says.
...In Walton County, there’s a keen sense of a sitting-between status – of not being
an aerospace center but not lacking potential. Says Steve Jaeger, executive director
of the Walton County Economic Development Alliance, “We have an excellent window
of time for attracting suppliers to the aviation industry, with Airbus going up in Mobile.
Their suppliers, who are primarily European-based, will either have to ship to Mobile
from Europe or set up manufacturing operations in the USA. If interested in USA that
would mean within reasonable distance of Mobile. And all of Northwest Florida
becomes candidates for that.’’
...Walton County has joined four other counties – Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa
and Bay – to focus on recruiting Airbus suppliers.
...Transportation convenience and improvements frequently are seen as ways to
attract aerospace suppliers, and some small counties are buying into that concept.
Example: Substantial improvements done and planned at the Marianna Airport in
Jackson County – including new lighting, runway and taxiway extensions and
resurfacing – could impress site-shoppers. Says City Manager Jim Dean: “The way
we’re situated, we could be one of those places that’s close enough.’’
...While Northwest Florida counties may be divided between those with strong
aerospace interests and those relying on legacy industries, there’s one thing they all
have in common: high interest in advanced manufacturing.
...Manufacturing, economic leaders point out, is a supplier industry for aerospace
and is a growth industry in its own right. Thus, aerospace can be providing jobs even
in counties with no direct aerospace operations.
...“Take Holmes County, for example,’’ says Jim Brook, executive director of
Opportunity Florida, a nine-county organization promoting economic growth: “There
are four shops there that do both specialized work and construction manufacturing
for metal parts, some of those serving aerospace-related companies.’’
...AUS Manufacturing Co. at Bonifay is one. “Any industry that involves machining
and fabrication work has impact on our company,’’ says AUS President Jimmy Rich.
AUS targets support equipment needs in bidding for work among aerospace
companies.
...Because manufacturing is a key driver in the region – where it’s expected to grow
faster than elsewhere in Florida  -- availability of workers with 21st-century
manufacturing skills is seen as critical. A recent survey by the Manufacturers Council
of Northwest Florida predicted a shortage of 3,400 skilled manufacturing workers
within five years – with aircraft mechanics among a dozen specialty areas. The
worker advantage: Pay is higher than in most other jobs. Looking ahead, the Council
and the University of West Florida recently partnered to give manufacturing careers
a head start through creation of advanced manufacturing career academies in
middle and high schools in Northwest Florida.
...One way or the other, direct or indirect, all counties in Northwest Florida are likely
to be impacted by the growing aerospace sector. Of 2,000 aviation and aerospace
companies in the state, 500 are in Northwest Florida, according to Enterprise Florida.
...“Northwest rural counties are located no more than an hour away from an airport,
large city or a college,” says Sean Helton, Enterprise Florida’s vice president of
strategic communications. “The rural counties offer close proximity to strategic
business resources, a wealth of business opportunities, an outstanding quality of life
and plenty of available land.’’
...Not bad for starters.

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