Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday January 16th 2019


The Bluffs Could Trigger Job Boom

By Rick Outzen

Last week, the FloridaWest Economic Development unveiled The Bluffs, an industrial campus to be developed in Cantonment that will create some 15,000 jobs, both direct and indirect, in its first 25 years.

“The Bluffs will be a ‘game-changer’ for Northwest Florida,” said FloridaWest CEO Scott Luth. “It will literally put Escambia County, Pensacola and Northwest Florida on the map as a center for manufacturing.”

What makes The Bluffs so exceptional?
Luth said, “What makes the site so unique is the existing infrastructure. There’s a billion plus dollars worth of infrastructure already on the ground up in that area when you look at the brand new waste treatment facility with ECUA, the Gulf Power generating facility and at the rail line—all in close proximity. Plus, we have access to the inter-coastal waterway with two barge terminals in that area.”

He said, “That is an extremely unique asset not only for our area, but also for the entire State of Florida.”

The Bluff is a public-private partnership in the truest sense.

“Florida West is the marketing and support arm of the Pensacola-Escambia Development Commission (PEDC), our development authority which is supported by our city and our county and the private sector,” said Luth. “The development of The Bluffs master plan has really been a joint effort between the public and the private sectors looking at what is our long-term strategy and how do we all work together.”

He further explained, “Our four primary partners on this are the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority and the University of West Florida on the public side and Ascend Performance Materials and Gulf Power Company on the private-sector side. They all came together to look at what is our long-term strategy to support our heavy industry and our heavy manufacturing opportunities.”

The Birth of FOIL
The master plan for The Bluffs didn’t happen overnight. The search began four years ago when economic development was still handled by the Greater Pensacola Chamber.  Fred Donovan, Jr. of Baskerville-Donovan chaired the effort to find potential sites in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties that would support the future growth of current industries as expanded and also attract new companies to the area.

His Commerce Sites and Buildings Committee held its first meeting in April 6, 2011; just months after the chamber announced its Vision 2015 plan that set out to create 3,000 jobs by 2015.

“Our charge was basically what kind of inventory do we have around Pensacola to support economic development activity?” Donovan told Inweekly.  “In order to create 3,000 (jobs), we had to have sites to put the companies. Our committee was all about where are we going to put these folks.”

Because of the pressure to deliver on Vision 2015, the committee chose to meet every three weeks. Donovan divided their efforts into two subcommittees.  Sonny Granger of Granger Development headed the Existing Sites subcommittee that developed an inventory of buildings and sites for businesses to purchase or lease.

“We needed to have some sort of formal program where commercial real estate brokers could submit sites and buildings that they thought were suitable for locating people when they came to Pensacola,” said Donovan. “That fell under Sonny’s group.”

Jim Cronley of Terhaar & Cronley General Contractors took charge of the New Sites subcommittee. Donovan explained, “His group sought to find sites if we wanted to be competitive with Biloxi, Charleston and other towns.”

Every meeting, groups made presentations on property that they had available. Jim Roberts of the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority told the committee about 25,000 acres off of Beck Lake Road, near the ECUA Central Water Reclamation Facility that had opened in December 2010.

“ECUA had so much property, because it thought the utility would have to spray the plant’s effluent out over a lot of area,” said Donovan. “But what happened was instead ECUA did advanced reuse and started piping it over to International Paper for process water and to the Gulf Power Crist Plant for its scrubbers on the plant. ECUA didn’t need the spray fields.”

Meanwhile, Don McMahon, the new chairman of the Greater Pensacola Chamber, was meeting with the Ascend Performance Materials, the successor to Monsanto. The company had a thousand acres of residual property and wanted to work with the Chamber to attract some of its suppliers to the area.

“Donny came back from that and told Sonny and me about it,” said Donovan. “ECUA and Ascend are practically their next-door neighbors. They both have got a bunch of property that doesn’t have anything on it, and they don’t have any plans for it.”

Gulf Power heard about it and had land available south of the site, as did the University of West Florida. Both were interested in being a part of the project.

“We formed a new subcommittee to focus entirely on determining the feasibility of the project,” said Donovan, “We named it ‘Project FOIL’ for Forward Operating Industrial Location.”

He said, “We chose that name because Pensacola is way out on the western panhandle. Florida is not as involved as a state in the northern Gulf Coast economic development marketplace as it is on the east coast. So picking up market share here has a lot more impact than picking up market share somewhere where we may have market saturation.”

Planned Approach
Gary Sammons, District General Manager for Gulf Power’s Western District, represented the utility on the Project Foil subcommittee. He currently serves on the board of FloridaWest.

“Escambia County recognized that it lacked a real product to pitch to industrial prospects,” said Sammons. “Freddie and Sonny’s group took a hard look at the corridor from the University of West Florida up just past ECUA to Becks Lake Road, and said, ‘You know what? This site is rich with opportunity. Let’s pursue it.’”

With the help of the PEDC and Luth, who was the Chamber’s vice president for economic development at the time, a request was made of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to provide funds for an engineering study of the 6,300 acres to determine the viability of a manufacturing cluster and presenting a planned approach to their development.

The request was approved to examine the land owned by four entities, ECUA, Ascend, Gulf Power and UWF, and to determine if it could be combined into a cohesive, marketable project.

The engineers quickly identified the unique infrastructural assets on the area:

-Three industrial high-pressure natural gas pipelines,
-A 900-MW/HR. power generation plant,
-Excess process steam,
-A 22-MGD wastewater treatment plan producing high-quality reclaimed water,
-Inland well field potable water capabilities,
-Class I industrial waterway access via barge terminals,
-Access to Interstate 10, and
-Proximity to both the Port of Pensacola and Pensacola International Airport.

The land had minimal vulnerability to storm surge and other natural and man-made hazards. Project FOIL also provided sufficient buffering from the academic campus located to its south and from surrounding residences.

The engineers came back with a master plan to develop four industrial clusters under the identity—“The Bluffs: Northwest Florida’s Industrial Complex.”

Live Oak Bluff and Longleaf Bluff are planned for Becks Lake Road, north of the ECUA facility. Live Oak is designed to accommodate up to 13 individual parcels with 210 upland acres, and an estimated building square footage of over 1.76 million sq. ft.  Its existing wetlands are to be preserved and used for a nature trail.

Longleaf has the largest potential parcel sizes on its 340 acres. The conceptual plan accommodates 11 buildings, averaging about 213,000 sq. ft. each, and an environmental learning center.

Magnolia Bluff is sandwiched between ECUA and Ascend and has access to rail and two barge terminals. With three potential parcels ranging from 24-55 acres, the parcels could also be combined for one large industrial facility.

Cypress Bluff is situated between Ascend and the Gulf Power Crist Plant. Its 225 acres can be divided into as many as six parcels. The Conceptual Site Plan accommodates 13 buildings, averaging about 164,020 sq. ft.

The Florida West CEO believes the clustering of industries in each of the bluffs is important.

“What it allows us to do is to look at the economies of scale,” said Luth, “When we want to cluster companies similar to those that we want to target here, it allows us to pool resources. We’re not running a rail line out in the middle of nowhere. We’re actually able to run a rail line where we have the appropriate site—same thing with the other utilities that are out there.”

Sammons liked the planned approach to development. He said, “It’s an approach that you can use and sell to prospects.  You can bring in some heavy manufacturing with this plan, the kind of industries that pay better salaries and offer benefits to their employees.”

Luth pointed out other advantages to clustering. He said, “We can better plan for stormwater runoff and build the necessary environmental protections that we all want to have.”

He added, “The Bluffs master plan allows you to do that at one general area. It allows you to make sure that you’re able to maintain the zoning and the compatible use around that entire area as well, and that’s what really helps when you look at that from a campus perspective.”

Sammons said that FloridaWest is committed to making The Bluffs an environmental showcase.

“In the case of ECUA, you have access to reclaimed water,” he said. “In the case of our power company, we sell our coal ash to use as a concrete product. We sell the gypsum from the cooling tower to be used to make gypsum board. Who knows what other kind of synergies with ECUA, Ascend and Gulf Power Company all right there together?”

He added, “We’re going to tap into the look of the University of West Florida and expand the nature trails and make sure there’s a community visitor’s center, that kind of thing. When you see the renditions of it, it’s really doable and it’ll be an attractive site.”

The environmental friendliness of The Bluffs should have make the campus attractive to prospects, according to Luth.

“We wanted to have something that was appealing to today’s advanced manufacturing industry,” he told Inweekly. “When you look at those types of companies that have sustainable policies and emissions, we wanted to make sure that we had a site that matched what those companies are looking for over the long term.”

Luth added, “You want to build in the amenities to support the employees, you want to build in walking trails, you want to build in appropriate lighting, you want to build in the appropriate recreational amenities, and a lot of that’s already in that area.”

He pointed out that the University of West Florida has nature trails that stretch from its campus on Nine Mile Road to the Crist Plant.

“There are golf courses that are already in that region,” said Luth. “Several of the companies in the area have existing amenities. International Paper has recreational areas for its employees. Ascend also has recreational areas already for its employees. What we want to do is master plan this so it ties in and takes advantage of all of those things.”

Outside Reactions
Luth said the state officials have been very supportive of The Bluffs concept. “This is one of the things that they’ve really encouraged,” he said. “You look at the reports, studies and recommendations out there, and there is a very strong effort to continue to diversify the economy for the State of Florida.”

He added, “The state has asked communities to step up and move forward with their own strategic plans and put together assets and the things that are out there, which then work in partnership with the State and going after these opportunities. So from that perspective, there’s only a handful of sites that have the existing amenities that are in place like this site has, so they’re very supportive of seeing communities develop parks like this.”

Sammons said there are no other projects like The Bluffs in our region, maybe even in all of Florida.

“What’s attractive about this particular area is first it’s large and it has the possibility of 60 different companies or more coming to Escambia County,” said Sammons. “It has rail service, it has gas transmission, and it has electric transmission. When I say it’s got them, I mean it’s right there. It’s not something you’ve got to run for miles. You have water and sewer.”

He added, “You have a four-lane highway in Highway 29 that connects directly with Interstate 10. You have two barge terminals. It’s away from the coast line, and it’s in an area that’s between 60 and 120 foot elevation with very little threat of flooding.”

Luth pointed out that adding more manufacturing jobs Escambia County is how we diversify our local economy.

“We have a very strong, wonderful military impact in this area, we’ve got a great tourism growth, and we’ve got a lot of jobs in the tourism, military and healthcare industry,” he said. “But a successful community is going to have a diversity of jobs across the board, and so we look at manufacturing as a target. We also look at our information technology, which is another target which requires different assets. We want to focus on both of those equally and make sure that we’re staged and set for success in the long term.”

The next step for The Bluffs is to figure how to stage the needed roads, rail connections and other infrastructure.

“We have volumes of information on the site, everything from our environmental impact studies to high-level assessments of where the infrastructure or roads need to go,” said Luth. “What we’re looking at now is how do we stage the project. We are looking at some additional assessments on the placement of the roads, what it’s going to cost to actually put some of that infrastructure in place, and obviously we need to identify the resources to make those things happen.”

According to the master plan, FloridaWest will recruit over the next 25 years 10 projects that will occupy more than 3.9 million sq. ft. of building space on 295 acres of land. The construction will have a value of nearly $400.5 million. The companies will create 6,000 jobs in the park, which will pay nearly $2.1 billion in wages.

The new indirect employment, which is caused outside of the park because of the expenditures of those 6,000 employees at The Bluffs, is estimated to total more than 9,100 jobs with aggregate wages of nearly $1.8 billion. Total combined direct and indirect jobs created for the first 25 years is more than 15,000 with aggregate wages of nearly $3.9 billion.

A cumulative amount of nearly $59 million in ad valorem tax revenue could be generated for Escambia County, but the amount will likely be reduced by incentives offered to attract companies.

The potential land sale value is over $8.2 million, although this could be reduced due to special prices negotiated for a highly-desirable project. The revenue will go to the current Phase 1 landowners, ECUA and Ascend.

According to the master plan, the potential economic benefit of every 10 acres of The Bluffs developed during the first 25 years:

-134,000 sq. ft. of taxable new building space,
-Nearly $13.6 million in construction value and related costs,
-Nearly $2 million in ad valorem property tax revenue paid to the County,
-More than 200 direct and 310 indirect jobs, and
-Nearly $132 million in wages from direct and indirect jobs in Escambia County and the regional economy.

Gulf Power is excited about The Bluffs, because its commitment is to be a good citizen wherever they are and to help communities prosper.  The utility sees the project as a generational one that will improve education, reduce poverty and provide good-paying jobs.

“From that perspective, it’s just the kind of thing that makes the community better, provides good jobs and gives people opportunity,” said Sammons. “We have the prospect of, maybe one day, bringing 15,000 manufacturing jobs into that corridor, with the spin-off possibilities.”

For Sammons, The Bluffs is important for a personal reason.

“For many years I lived in the Pensacola area, and I have five grandchildren in this community,” he said. “These kinds of prospects mean that they may be able to stay in this community when they graduate from college or they go through trade school and do whatever it is they want to do to make a living. That’s exciting to me. There’s possibility in that.”

Sammons added, “I do see this as the kind of project that will keep on giving for a number of years. A few years to get it started, but I think the potential’s really there.”

The FloridaWest CEO said that The Bluffs could be that game-changer that will truly diversify our economy and protect us from the economic turmoil created by a natural disaster or cuts in federal defense funding.

Luth said, “This is the very first step on a very long journey to make sure that we are successful as a community, and so I think the community and FloridaWest will continue to work this project over the long haul.”