New marketing brochure part of stepped-up effort to attract businesses to industrial park

Gusts of state support for a stepped-up marketing campaign, plus state and federal dollars targeted at infrastructure improvements, are wafting fresh winds under the wings of the Apalachicola Regional Airport.

County commissioners last week listened to a lengthy Power Point presentation, and reviewed a copy of a newly-created airport marketing brochure, all pieces of a strategic plan created by private sector consultants funded by grants from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

The commissioners heard from Airport Manager Jason Puckett, touting the work that’s been done by Centric Aviation since the county last fall signed a five-year deal with the New Jersey company to be the fixed base operator.

The commissioners responded warmly to the presentations, but were not without some puffs of impatience that perhaps they’ve heard it all before.

“When are you going to get something going to put people to work?” asked Commissioner Noah Lockley. “We don’t need more studies; we need to put people to work.”

Commissioner Cheryl Sanders said that in the 20 years she’s sat on the board, she’s heard a lot of hopes, but seen less success stories, when it comes to attracting potential employers willing to set up shop in the industrial park adjacent to the airfield.

“Talk is cheap, y’all,” she said. “That is a good opportunity to put some good jobs out there to employ some of our people. I hope you will pursue that. It’s an economic driver in our county.”

Alan Pierce, the former county planner now working on the task of directing RESTORE Act monies to local projects, underscored the commissioners’ concerns.

“We see millions of dollars going in there just to maintain the thing and no jobs are being created,” he said. “The feds are willing to put money in the thing.”

Puckett, noting how all parties concerned would like to see jobs created at the airport, stressed the airport is continuing to show growing signs of a continued indirect benefit to job creation.

He said the airport’s courtesy cars made 107 roundtrips into Apalachicola in February, all helping to add to jobs in the hospitality industry, as people frequent stores and restaurants, and often seek overnight accommodations.

He said Centric has added new flooring to the airport’s office space, has selected recipients of three $1,000 scholarships for high school seniors, is in a position to do well on next week’s annual FDOT inspection, and has moved forward on projects to remark an airfield lane, add runway lighting, make drainage improvements and construct a commercial access road.

“The airport is doing a great job,” said Puckett.

“We have not seen it (direct job creation),” said Sanders. “We really need to look seriously at other opportunities; we have got to look at more.

“We’ve got our construction industry, we’ve got our tourist industry but we need more,” she said.

“We need plenty more,” said Lockley. “It’s going to take a while for that bay to come back.

“It’s been promising and promising and promising and nobody gets no money but these top people,” he said.

“In other words we want results,” said Sanders.

Beth Kirkland, together with Santiago Fernandez, both consultants working as subcontractors with BRPH, an engineering firm in Melbourne, outlined in their Power Point a Strategic Commercial Land Development Plan, which further specified the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) report discussed a year ago.

The plan outlined a wealth of information about what neighboring counties are doing to beef up their transportation infrastructure, and what resources are available, particularly from RESTORE Act monies, as well as rural infrastructure and job growth funding available from Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity.

“It’s important for them to know where all the pots of money are,” said Kirkland. “You want all of that to be coordinated. We’re looking for those connection points.”

She said the state is working on preparing a strategic outlook for all 129 of its airports, which are likely to take at least a year to complete.

“The airport is a port to our community, and the indirect job creation that occurs because of having that big of an asset in your community,” she said. “It would be sorely missed and the economic impact would be felt if it wasn’t there.”

She said that an economic impact analysis of direct, indirect and induced job creation, both presently and potentially, will help influence the county’s expectations for its FBO. She included consideration of possibly adding a restaurant as a potential enhancement.

“Those are amenities that the general aviation community enjoys,” she said. “As they design a new FBO, they will likely incorporate something like that.”

Kirkland said the county needs to pursue what she called “competitive benchmarking” of the potential return on investment for airport vs. non-airport parcels. She said recreation options for the former landfill site nearby also should be reviewed, as well as an additional row of T-hangars.

“If we’re going to build on that site, there is certain remediation you have to do,” she said. “But you can do things like outdoor trails and things, whatever kind of reception you’re interested in.”

She said the future of the now vacant Bay City Work Camp site also needs to be examined. “Our recommendation is to look at that as a potential workforce training facility,” said Kirkland. “(Companies) are going to want to have a place to train their work force. There may be some opportunities to have that discussion with the school board.

“Franklin County doesn’t have any post-secondary training in the county,” she said. “Could this be a satellite campus for that?”

Kirkland and Fernandez also unveiled a new full-color glossy brochure, marketing the county as a distinct destination, and outlining what the airport industrial park has to offer, particularly as to its role in the Gulf to Gadsden Freight Logistics Zone (FLZ).

The FLZ is one of two such groupings of activities and infrastructure associated with freight transportation and related services created by Florida statute three years ago, Hillsborough County being the other.

“Establishment of the FLZ can provide public funding when pursuing certain projects within the FLZ,” notes the brochure. “As a common transportation asset, the Apalachicola Northern Railway (owned by St. Joe Company and operated by Genesee and Wyoming Railways) connects the Port of Port St. Joe in Gulf County with the CSX Class I railroad in Gadsden County, thereby providing for the movement of goods across the nation.”

The brochure notes that several industrial sites have been identified and qualified by Enterprise Florida’s Strategic Sites program along the railroad and close to additional transportation assets.

“Interstate 10 and major arterial roads like Highways 65, 71 and US 98 together with the Apalachicola Regional Airport in Franklin County comprise a transportation network that is valuable to the growing industries of transportation, logistics, manufacturing, and distribution,” it reads.

Kirkland said Gulf County is working to secure Triumph monies for a floating harbor to help activate its port for larger vessels; Liberty County has received job growth monies to build an additional road that opens up some of its strategic sites; and Gadsden has gotten acreage under option for use with the FLZ.

She said she now is looking for feedback from the commissioners on the new brochure.

“These are important steps in the process,” Kirkland said. “ I understand that at the end of the day that’s what it’s about, job creation. It’s a responsibility for a commission that has auspices of a major asset like the airport.

“They have embraced the tools available to them and they should be applauded,” she said. “All of these other things are to their credit. You have to lay the groundwork to articulate to businesses in the region here’s why you should relocate there.

“Businesses are looking for a regional economic development plan that can support their efforts and held get their goods to market and help them get the assets they need,” Kirkland said.