Bay County Set to Boom – Interview with Dr. Ed Wright

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"The nature of our area will change forever, and in a great way."

Dr. Ed Wright, former Dean of FSU-PC and current stand-in director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance was gracious enough to start our series of Leader Profile interviews that will showcase the local talent that our area possesses.  Dr. Wright shares with us his former role as Dean, his current role as EDA Director, and what we may see in the future of Bay County.

Koertge:  You are the former dean of FSU-PC,  how long were you the dean?
:  Almost seven years.

Koertge: Did you move to Panama City for that specifically?
: I did.  I was serving as the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Colorado State University when The Florida State University position was advertised.  My wife and I had long connections with Panama City, had come here to the beach many times, plus my wife had family just outside New Orleans, so it was close.  In addition, I had done a lot of work with Gulf Coast Community College.  I was happy where I was, very successful and doing well, but when I told my wife about the position, she said four words to me – ‘get your typewriter out.’  This was the only time I applied for a job in several years and low and behold, we ended up coming.

Koertge:  So, tell us about the timing of your move.
:  It was just the right time for me, and it was time for real growth at FSU-PC.  FSU had been fairly unresponsive prior to my coming to the needs of the community and the community was getting a little restless about it.  That was communicated to me pretty quickly.  When the dean before me, Larry Bland, who was the founding dean – great guy, had been here for years –  retired, they put together a commission of city and university people to talk about the future of the campus.  This group came up with a plan or rather an inventory of needs.  Part of my role in the beginning was to respond to that inventory of needs.  Of the many things we did, we brought in daytime programs, as well as other educational programs to help broaden our teaching capability.   However, one of the most important programs we brought on was the engineering program. The initiative was to create a real full time or day time campus.

After about 6 years in the seat, we decided it was time to retire.  It was time to spend time with family and my mother, and also we timed it because the new buildings coming along. We figured with the new buildings and a great enthusiasm and buoying up of support –  what a great time for a new Dean to be here and benefit from that very important time.  And, now they are online, and what a great thing that is.  I walked through them the other day, and they are very nicely done.

Koertge: If you could name one, what would you say was the highlight of your career at FSU-PC?
Wright: One highlight of my career is crystal clear to me, and it is a story that I’ve told hundreds of times.  This story captures the mission of a regional campus, it captures Panama City, and it captures what FSU Panama City has become.  The first graduate of the Electrical Engineering program was a young woman.  The commencement was always the highlight for many of us because you get to see all these people that have worked so hard come to the conclusion of their educational career with high hope for what the future will bring them.  Many of them, for a long time were non-traditional students achieving their goals and making a difference in their life and in their future.   So, here’s a gal who was a single mom with three kids, living at home with her parents, working as much as she could – the day she walked across that stage, her life changed forever.  Now she’s working a great job, has been there for years, and has been able to offer her kids a life they never could have had before.  And, importantly, the life of the community changed forever because her role in It will be different, her contribution to It will be different.  That’s really what this is all about.

Koertge: What is the Bay County Economic Development Alliance?
Wright:  the EDA is a public/private partnership consisting of county municipalities in partnership with private companies such as St. Joe, Gulf Power and various others that contribute or have an interest in the economic development of our area.  The whole purpose of the EDA is to attract new businesses and employment opportunities and help existing industries to expand and bring new business. The board is a volunteer board led by Lisa Walters, a partner in Burke and Blue. She’s a great gal, works so hard.

Koertge:  What roles does the Economic Development Alliance play in the community?
:  The whole purpose of the EDA is to develop proposals, to target businesses that could benefit from it, provide industry related information to businesses, participate in marketing events (sometimes jointly with the Great Northwest), working with companies that may want to relocate here to perform site location studies among other things, and to structure and develop packages of incentives that are provided based on certain qualifications of the businesses.  The EDA’s job is to market the region and work with those that would like to develop as potential employers in our area.  Nextel and Oceaneering coming to Bay County are some examples of past EDA efforts.

Koertge:  What is your role as the temporary director of the EDA?
Wright:  Well, first, try to keep the place running (laugh).  I came down the week before Ted [Clem] left and received lots of briefings about the current goings-on in our program.  2008 closed out with 11 active projects in the works and I’m also involved in facilitating the building of new relationships.  I’ve worked with three inquires in the two weeks I’ve been here from companies interested in our area or in the Southeast that may develop into fruitful relationships – we are in the business of developing proposals catering to these types of solicitations.

In addition, equally important, and maybe even more important, rather, is the search for a new executive director.  We’ve got to develop a process to bring about that search and to find the right kind of person for this position.

Koertge:  People, locals and tourist alike, tend to overlook Port Panama City, what do you see on the horizon as far as economic development with regards to the port?
Wright:  Certainly, I think, Wayne Stubbs has done a terrific job as the director of the Port; he has certainly expanded their capability.  They have some land constraint issues, but that is alleviated by their having an industrial area right up 231 that is directly connected by rail that is actually being developed – that’s a really important site for future development.  I think that we’ll see some activity that will make that land more interesting to a potential business that may come here in the near future.

There is a lot of potential, and we are going to try and accelerate that process so some of the ground work is complete for that future potential business.  Then of course, there is the distance from the Yucatan.  You know, this port is closer to the Yucatan than Miami, because from the Yucatan, you have to go around Cuba to get to Miami.  Not to mention the progress with the new Panama Canal and the possible future activity that could open our area up to with the capability to accommodate much larger ships.

Koertge:  Can you speak into those things unique to our area that are setting the stage for Bay County to explode?
Wright:  The industrial park around the airport and the developable property within the fence, about 400 to 500 acres, in terms of aviation related business is a huge advantage that our area will have.  In the future, we will have tremendous opportunity that may be difficult to foresee at this time.  For example, with the airbus A380 project, if the timeline of the new airport were more further along, we would have very likely been the site instead of Mobile.  So, there are lots of things that could happen that are related to access to an airstrip or runway that this site certainly affords.

And of course, the whole commerce park outside the fence has the potential for logistics and cargo-related types of businesses, and its a great opportunity for businesses to build what they want as opposed to trying to retrofit something that is already there.  Something else that is sometimes overlooked is the growing number of defense contractors that support the Navy base, Air Force research lab, and the Civil Engineering center at Tyndall.  We’ll see that number grow.

The Navy base has become, really, a hub for a lot of different technologies.  In fact, one of the things I tried to do after I retired but was still doing some work here was to get the new airport to be a test bed for new technologies.  It is a great place and opportunity because you can bring a new system in, plug it in and see how it works.

Finally, where in the southeast can you land a large cargo aircraft with relative ease, and with ease, I don’t mean in regards to the length of the runway, but in regards to the amount of airspace.  This airport will have lots of available airspace, timewise, with regards to cargo operations.  Now, nothing is happening in this specific arena, so I don’t want to mislead anybody, but I’ve always believed that we have the opportunity when the economic base is sufficient to talk about a regional cargo kind of location.  We will have lots of space to develop the kinds of distribution centers that you would need and plenty of space in terms of airspace and times that you can have access to the airspace.

And I still believe that if Airbus will manage to become profitable in their manufacture of their huge cargo carrier, the A380, then FedEx and UPS may pick up a dozen a piece.  Where are you going to fly that huge plane into?  Currently there is only one airport in Florida that can handle a plane of that size in terms of runway length and turning radius capabilities – Miami.  As I understand, our airport should be able to handle something like this, however, they may have to do some modifications to accommodate turn radiuses and taxiway requirements, but again, we’re dealing with a clean slate.  These are some of the kinds of things that we will have to offer.

Koertge:  What sort of regional impact does the new airport potentially have?
Wright:  Oh, its huge.  And we haven’t even begun to talk about the impact it will have on The Beach, if you will, the destination of Pensacola to “the bend”.  And the way it potentially changes this tourism market in terns of access, if we get a low cost carrier.  We’ll get people coming out of larger cities that have never heard of our area before and the potential to bring international travelers.  This will change the nature of this destination forever, in a great way.