MARIANNA—A standing coalition of higher education leadership has resolved to work proactively in strategic partnership to promote economic growth and development throughout Northwest Florida.
The Florida Panhandle Presidents’ Coalition is made up of state college and university presidents, including: Dr. Judy Bense, University of West Florida (UWF); Dr. Edward Meadows, Pensacola State College; Dr. Sasha Jarrell, Northwest Florida State College; Dr. Jason Hurst, Chipola College; Dr. John Holdnak, Gulf Coast State College; and Dr. Jim Murdaugh, Tallahassee Community College.
Chipola President Dr. Jason Hurst, says, “It’s unique that presidents at colleges and universities across our region are committed to crossing borders to do what’s best for the region and not just our own institutions. CEO’s are competitive by nature and we don’t always want to share our best ideas. This group has realized that, by working together, we can accomplish much more for the people we serve.”
Most colleges brought their resident grant writers to the coalition meeting. Some already have collaborated on successful grant applications. Hurst pointed to the work of the Alabama/Florida Technical Employment Network (AF-TEN) as a positive example of working across boundaries to achieve shared goals. AF-TEN won a $10 million grant to start new welding programs at Chipola, L. B. Wallace, Northwest Florida State, Pensacola State, and Wallace Community College. The grant was awarded in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. Today, all five colleges in the network have robust enrollment in their welding programs. Building onto the multi-college welding initiative, the president’s discussed the establishment of a North West Florida Business and Industry Mobile Training Institute.
Additionally, UWF, in partnership with Florida’s Great Northwest, recently was awarded a grant by the U.S. Economic Development Administration aimed at creating a regional plan for economic transformational. The aims of the plan will be to provide a framework for the diversification and expansion of Northwest Florida’s economy, thereby reducing the region’s heavy dependence on tourism- and defense-related revenues.
Darwin Gilmore, Chipola College Dean of Workforce and Economic Development, said, “It is exciting to see what is in store for the last frontier in the great state of Florida. In support of this planned economic diversity, we see our university and college presidents demonstrating a commitment to value our educational assets and develop a coordinated effort to establish the degrees, certificates and ultimately the workforce solution we need for long term success. Without adequate technical degrees and corporate training, new industry will not locate in our region. This will be a key next step in our economic development strategy.”
Two major economic development projects also were discussed in the meeting. The first is a 2,200 acre mega site in North Jackson County preparing to receive a tenant, ideally an automotive manufacturing plant. The site, created through an Alabama-Florida partnership, has the potential to employ thousands and spawn related businesses throughout the region.
The second project discussed by the group is the potential for a Panama City company to win a $10 billion contract to build cutter ships for the U.S. Coast Guard. Eastern Shipbuilding in Panama City is a finalist for the 20-year contract which has the potential to bring thousands of jobs and create supply chain businesses across the area.
Dr. John Holdnack, President of Gulf Coast State College, says, “In this case, a rising tide really does lift all boats. The impact of this Coast Guard project would have far-reaching effects for two decades. Gulf Coast State will need help to provide the training for this project. It is imperative that we work together to serve our college communities and the region at large.”
As the group further discussed future projects, Pensacola State President, Dr. Ed Meadows, recommended establishing Regional Economic Development Centers to provide a network for economic progress in Northwest Florida. Meadows, said, “These Economic Development Centers would recruit business and industry, promote the region, help with public policy strategy, and provide business incubation and training.” Meadow said the centers would also help unify job creation efforts in the region and offer on-site training at each college.
Dr. Brice Harris, Assistant Vice President for Research and Economic Opportunity at UWF, presented information on Triumph Gulf Coast, which will oversee the disbursement of funds recovered for state economic damages from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Funds will be used to invest in economic recovery, diversification and enhancement of the eight coastal counties of Northwest Florida that were most impacted by the spill. The President’s Coalition is in the process of formulating a proposal for the use education as a central tenet of the region’s economic future.
Also attending the meeting were: Dr. Debbie Douma, Pensacola State; Dr. Anne Southard, Northwest Florida State; Dr. Matthew Hughes, Chipola College; Al McCambry, Gulf Coast State, and Stephen Soloman, Tallahassee Community College.