Pensacola, Florida
Friday October 19th 2018


Rising From The Ashes Of Recession

Three initiatives work to resurrect Pensacola Bay Area

“Our economy was moving along fine,” said Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce chairman Collier Merrill in describing the recession that has gripped the region since 2007. “Then, like a game of musical chairs, the music stopped and there weren’t enough chairs for everyone.”

Merrill was addressing a group of business, community and civic leaders on Thursday, Nov. 4 at the Atlas Oyster House for the Ready 4 Takeoff Coalition, a four-state alliance composed of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to help the region recover from the BP oil disaster and the hurricanes that have battered these states for the past five years.

Earlier in the day, United Way of Escambia president Jean Norman and Buzz Ritchie, president of Gulf Coast Community Bank, met with the IN over boxed lunches from Norma’s On the Run to talk about Unite Escambia, their initiative that focuses on education, environment, health, housing and poverty. What spurred the meeting was the IN cover “United We Fail” (Independent News, Oct. 7) that reported on the failed Envision Escarosa effort. They wanted to show how their collaborative movement has learned from those mistakes.

On the previous afternoon, Bentina Terry, vice president of external affairs and corporate services for the Gulf Power Company, and Reed Benson, project director for the Atlanta-based National Community Development Services (NCDS), visited the IN offices to outline Vision 2015, the Pensacola Chamber’s five-year plan for job creation in the Pensacola Bay Area. Terry co-chairs Vision 2015 with Jim Donatelli, the regional bank president for Regions Bank. Benson is the consultant who has helped organize the effort.

There is little argument that the economy of the Pensacola Bay Area nearly bottomed out in the past decade. The 9/11 tragedy, hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina, the collapse of the real estate market and the BP oil disaster pushed the area to the brink. Without the military presence in Northwest Florida, the impact of those economic bombshells could have been much worse.

Ready 4 Takeoff, Unite Escambia and Vision 2015 are aimed at resurrecting the economy of the Pensacola Bay Area. Each attacks the problem from a different direction.


Ready 4 Takeoff has emerged as a leading advocate for the advancement of pro-growth initiatives that will expand local economies and help create and retain good paying jobs throughout the Gulf Coast economy. The Atlas meeting was one of four town hall meetings across the region that hoped to sign up area groups and businesses for the coalition.

“The primary focus is to fight for the KC-45 Tanker contract for Mobile,” Merrill told the crowd at the meeting. “That is a $40 billion contract that will benefit this entire region.”

The Air Force is expected to announce as early as Nov. 12 who will be awarded the contract. Two years ago, Northrop Grumman initially won the bid and announced its facility would be in Mobile, only to have Boeing challenge the award and force the contract to be rebid.

“We want to be prepared this time to fight for the contract,” said Charles Wood, the Chamber’s vice president for economic development. “Ready 4 Takeoff will give us a regional voice to counter whatever political opposition may surface.”

Other Ready 4 Takeoff economic development projects include bolstering sales of Gulf seafood, boosting local tourism and expediting the revenue sharing from offshore oil and gas development.


United Way of Escambia County has spearheaded Unite Escambia, a true community effort to create a healthy community where all have the opportunity and inspiration to succeed. Buzz Ritchie is the Unite Escambia Community Champion.

“One of our problems is our story isn’t exciting, but we’re making real progress,” said Ritchie. “The progress is gradual, but it’s happening.”

Unite Escambia was formed in 2006 under its original name, Escambia Community Collaborative, which began as a partnership between United Way of Escambia County, the Escambia County Health Department and Partnership for a Healthy Community.

The original Leadership Team included more than 40 community members who helped establish the priorities and set a 10-30-year shared community vision for Escambia County. Five solutions teams were formed around the areas of education, environment, health, housing and poverty. The solutions teams developed goals to be achieved by 2020 with action plans that measured improvement.

“A great deal of deliberation and effort went into the goals, plans and measurements,” said Jean Norman. “These problems didn’t happen overnight, but we are picking away at them.”

Indeed, Unite Escambia can point to successes in all five areas from the curbside recycling throughout the city and county to creation of the “Bridges to Circles” program that helps people out of poverty through community-based relationships.

“We’ve been at it for four years and I truly think we’re near the tipping point,” said Ritchie. “And there are ways for everyone to help.”

Norman agreed, “There is much to say about the power of persistence.”


Last year, Escambia County and the Chamber battled over how economic development would be done. The Escambia County Commission agreed to let the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce lead the effort, but with two caveats. The Chamber would need to show measureable results and show a more substantial monetary commitment from the private sector.

The Chamber hired Benson and NCDS to survey the market and figure out what was a reasonable fundraising goal and how to achieve it. That was the first step. The second was for the Chamber to hire a new CEO who had a successful track record with economic development. In August, Jim Hizer came on board after leading the highly regarded Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce and the Intermodal Transportation Authority. Under his leadership, that Chamber created, over six years, nearly 4,400 jobs and more than $407.7 million in economic investment.

The final step is Vision 2015, whose goal is to raise $6.5 million over the next five years and add 3,000 new jobs to the Pensacola Bay Area.

“Those jobs mean $77.1 million in new bank deposits and $11 million in additional groceries bought each year,” said Terry. “They mean an additional $2 million spent on medical services and almost $9 million in new vehicles purchased.

“They mean people buy $18 million in new homes and spend $5 million to furnish them. And they mean an additional $149 million in consumer spending and $5.3 million in additional sales.”

“Three million dollars of Vision 2015 funding will come from the public sector,” said Benson, “and we have seen a substantial increase in the level of investment from area businesses.”

He listed the commitments by Gulf Power, Sacred Heart, Lewis Bear Company and Sandy Sansing. Benson believes the private sector may invest as much as $3.5 million in Vision 2015.

“The response has been amazing,” Terry added. “People see this as a new day in economic development and understand the impact that 3,000 new jobs will have on this community.”

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