Panhandle Partnership Could Grow Jobs, Preview Gov's Race Rhetoric

Aug 18, 2017

Rep. Alexander and Sen. Montford (3rd and 4th from right) with local officials.
Credit Nick Evans

Four counties in North Florida are forming what’s known as a freight logistics zone to improve the region’s chances for state infrastructure dollars.  Officials believe it’s an important step toward growing jobs. 

“Anybody want to guess how many counties have more jobs now than they did before the recession?”

It’s June this year and Jerry Parrish is putting the question to the board members at an Enterprise Florida meeting.  Parrish is the Florida Chamber’s lead economist.

And the answer isn’t pretty.

“This has been something that I’ve shown many places and it is shocking,” he tells the room. “I will tell you, 31 counties in Florida have more jobs now than they did in 2007.”

Parrish's breakdown of job growth, or lack thereof, since 2007
Credit Jerry Parrish / Florida Chamber

Florida has 67 counties.  So in more than half of the state questions about the strength of Florida’s recovery might take a back seat to “what recovery?” 

Parrish explains it’s a national trend, and Florida is actually doing better than average.  But in many places—often rural—jobs simply haven’t returned to pre-recession levels.  Now four of those counties in North Florida are trying something new.

State lawmakers and local officials got together at a Georgia Pacific lumberyard in Hosford Florida—a small unincorporated community of about 650 in Liberty County—to announce they’re forming a freight logistics zone, or FLZ.

That’s Ricky Fitzgerald from the Florida Department of Transportation, and he's speaking at a Georgia Pacific lumberyard in Hosford Florida—a small unincorporated community of about 650 in Liberty County.  Nearby state lawmakers and officials from three neighboring counties are here to 

“So this FLZ and the plan that we have will help the region to capitalize on transportation network[s] and also related activities to enhance we hope enhance freight mobility and economic viability for this region,” Ricky Fitzgerald from the Florida Department of Transportation explains.

In plain English it means by teaming up, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty and Franklin counties are giving themselves a better shot at state transportation money.  Here’s Tallahassee Democratic Representative Ramon Alexander.

“We have to know who we are as a region,” Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) says, “and we have to become comfortable with our responsibility and our focus to provide the quality of life within the region.”

“And logistics and being able to move people, move resources—we are strategically located within this region to do that.”

The four counties cut a path from Port St. Joe on the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border—picking up transcontinental freeway and rail access along the way.  And all four of them are on Parrish’s list of counties with fewer jobs now than in 2007. 

“Some of us have been around for a long time in this area,” Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) says, “and we know what it takes to make north Florida grow and it’s these types of projects.”

“Now if you look at Florida,” he goes on, “We talk about a lot of growth in Florida, we talk about a lot of jobs and so on.  The fact is rural Florida—rural Florida—is in a crisis.” 

“It doesn’t matter if its education, or if its healthcare, or economic development we’re in what I call a crisis.  But this is the way to address the crisis that we’re facing.”

It’s unclear whether the new partnership will be the silver bullet he’s hoping for—it’s only the second freight logistics zone in the state, although there is a third in development.  

But Montford’s call seems likely to grow louder in the next year and change.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in our jobs statewide in the last seven or eight years,” Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) said at a Hialeah event.  “Governor Scott gets a lot of credit for that—1.4 million new jobs in Florida.”

“But there’s 36 counties in Florida that have actually lost jobs in the same period of time.”

The Clearwater Republican is running for governor and he was in Hialeah to kick off his gubernatorial bid.  At least on the republican side of the race, rural areas could become a significant campaign issue.  The Tampa Bay Times reports agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam, frontrunner for the GOP nomination, is calling for more economic development in rural areas, too.