Community leaders from throughout Franklin County congregated in Eastpoint Monday to talk over what it will take to diversify the local economy while preserving what’s best about it now.

Billed as “a Long-term Economic Diversification Summit,” the all-day affair at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve featured a broad swath of viewpoints, from both east and west, from the schools to businesses to elected officials, topped off with a keynote speech by Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

“The future of this region, and the state as a whole, lies in fostering diversified economic growth and ensuring we have the workforce pipeline to meet employer needs,” Panuccio said. “It will not be easy.  The people of this county are rightfully proud of their history as oystermen and fishermen.  It’s a trade they know well and they do well.  For years, Franklin County served Florida and the nation as a prime source of seafood.

“Apalachicola oysters are not just a menu item, they are a way of life for generations,” he said. “I get that.  And it should be celebrated.  Indeed, the rest of the nation could take a lesson from the families of Franklin County – their pride, hard work, and self-reliance.

“But my sense is that the families and communities of Franklin County are also ready to consider new ideas.  You are eager to celebrate your past traditions and find ways to sustain them, but you are also ready to invite new trades to town, to train for those trades, and to find new traditions to pass down from generation to generation,” said Panuccio.

“Economic diversification doesn’t happen overnight.  It’s a long process that can take many years.  But by developing a countywide strategy, partners can begin to work with one another towards long-term goals that match the priorities of all the communities involved,” he said.

“I look forward to the day when we will gather here for a celebratory event, with a thriving Apalachicola Bay and Franklin County in a strong and diversified economic position,” Panuccio said, in his conclusion. “I look forward to the day when we have a summit to teach other communities how to do what Franklin County is going to do.”

The three-pronged objectives of the summit – to develop ideas on how to keep and enhance existing industries, target new ones and develop the workforce – began with a welcome from County Commission Chair Cheryl Sanders, Apalachicola Mayor Pro Tem Frank Cook and Carrabelle Commissioner Charlotte Schneider.

After that the lead facilitator Heidi Stiller, who works with NOAA’s Coastal Services Center, had all 80 or so people around the room introduce themselves, and say what they most loved about the county.

For some, it was the rural nature of the community and its independent people, and their “multi-generational connectiveness”; for others it was the authentic sense of place and character, the wildlife, the environment.

The room was filled with representatives of nearly all the county’s governmental bodies or community organizations, as well as business people.

By the afternoon, participants would have a chance to share their thoughts, and brainstorm ideas on a variety of topic areas.

But the morning was spent hearing an overview of what has so far been done by DEO, first by Kim Bodine, who heads up the Gulf Coast Workforce Board and later underscored by Panuccio in his keynote address.

After praising Governor Scott’s strategy for tackling economic problems statewide, Panuccio recounted the successes DEO has had in addressing the county’s short-term needs in the wake of the troubles facing the oyster industry.

“A few regions of the state face special problems and are still hurting economically.  Franklin County is one of them,” he told the gathering. “Franklin County has not only been hurt by the general economic downturn, but specifically has seen an environmental disaster cause the collapse of its main industry.”

Panuccio said DEO staff has been, over the last few months, “helping to respond to immediate hardships and needs” through three Resource Fairs held in coordination with over 20 partner agencies.

He said these fairs had more than 1,200 people attending and more than 650 receiving emergency assistance including food, workforce programs, and the processing of SNAP applications.

Panuccio noted that, in conjunction with the local workforce board and the Governor’s office, DEO had obtained a National Emergency Grant funding to support recovery efforts, including the hiring of up to 215 out-of-work oystermen in clean-up and restoration efforts.

“Currently there are 164 individuals working in temporary jobs, shelling the bay and assisting with debris removal,” he said, also pointing out that DEO had coordinated a food drive that resulted in thousands of pounds of food being delivered to Franklin’s Promise Coalition in Oct. and Nov. 2012.

Panuccio said 138 families received help with heating and cooling costs through the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. He said the Franklin Works Program, coordinated by Kim Bodine and the Gulf Coast Workforce Board, has helped more than 700 residents with temporary job placements, skills assessments, and training for welding, law enforcement, and commercial driving.  They will also soon start a certified nursing program.

Bodine said 11 individuals had completed classroom training in corrections, 17 had earned welding certifications, and eight were soon to enroll in training to earn a commercial drivers license.

In a panel discussion on local perspectives, Alan Pierce, the county’s director of administrative services, provided background on development projects over his more than two decades with the county.

“We realize as government leaders that we can’t rely on housing to bring us out of the economic slump were in, because housing is flat everywhere,” he said. “We’re looking at small businesses. Ecotourism is clearly an opportunity. The other thing we see as an opportunity is the airport. The state of Florida promotes aerospace, and we have to two airports that are both underutilized.

“And we have an undeveloped industrial park,” Pierce said. “Carrabelle has hangars that are also vacant.”

But, he continued, “aerospace is something that requires a trained labor force. We have an economic time warp on the skills needed to compete in today’s marketplace. It’s a different world than when I came here 25 years ago. If they are born and raised here, they may be missing some of those job skills. The labor force is a challenge.”

Apalachicola City Administrator Betty Taylor-Webb, filling in for Franklin County Seafood Workers Association President Shannon Hartsfield, outlined areas of focus on preserving the seafood industry.

“They are so appreciative of the help they have been given so far,” she said. “The bay is not what is used to be; they’re very concerned.

“Shannon mentioned that they know the seafood industry is dwindling, they know it’s going away,” she said. “It could be a dying industry. We hope everyone joins them to get them over the hump. They’re not always going to have grants coming in.”

She said opportunities for entrepreneurship have been discussed, but “seafood workers are not the typical business person. It has to be something they enjoy, that they’re interested in. They’re not interested in working a 9-5 job.”