Partnerships key to spurring economic development in Destin

Matt Algarin | Going Forward
Sandy Sims, from Gulf Power, was one of many speakers who shared the importance of economic development to the Destin Forward class recently.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Log Reporter Matt Algarin is a member of this year’s Destin Forward class. He will be filing stories monthly chronicling his experiences in the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program.

In the days and months following the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010, retailers, hoteliers, restaurants and local officials were treated to a harsh realization — a tourism season without tourists is bad news for the local economy.

While there were minimal impacts to the beaches in Okaloosa County, lodging partners saw their numbers drop, restaurants saw tables sit empty and the streets of Destin were eerily quieter than normal, due to the perception that our beaches were “dirty.”

Tourism will always be the primary economic engine along the Emerald Coast, given the area’s sugar-white sands and emerald green waters, but economic development is needed to move the area forward. That was the message shared by the speakers during Economic Development Day for the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce’s Destin Forward Class.

Speakers included Ken Gallander from the city of Destin, Sandy Sims from Gulf Power, Kay Rasmussen from the Economic Development Council, Kevin Bowyer from Warren Averett O’Sullivan Creel, Jim Vest from the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority and Jim Wood from the city of Destin.

Looking inside Destin’s four walls, Gallander defined economic development as a long-range process that “stimulates change in and/or maintains business activity and employment locally.

”To put it plainly, Gallander said the goal of economic development is to help increase the tax and income bases, create jobs for a wider range of residents (from retail and hospitality to professional), and to create an environment where people don’t want to/or have to leave to obtain work in their desired career.

But that’s easier said than done, of course.

“It’s definitely not a quick fix,” he told the class. “There is no magic bullet.”

When you think of economic development, Gulf Power Company isn’t the first name you would think of, but the local utility definitely has their hands in the game.

Sims, public affairs manager, says they are seeing a lot of interest in Northwest Florida, but there are still plenty of challenges that need to be worked through, such as the cost of economic development; competition with states such as Alabama and Mississippi; a lack of a true industrial base; and an outsiders perspective of Florida.

Basically, when a company is looking to relocate, Sims said that most people know what Miami has to offer, but Gulf Power stresses that Northwest

Florida is completely different and has opportunities business owners are not going to find in South Beach.

With some rural areas, Northwest Florida allows for some agricultural opportunities, and given the heavy military presence, defense-related goods and services have a strong base.

If a business is looking to re-locate, Sims said the presence of unoccupied businesses were “unattractive,” and give prospective companies the indication of “failed commitments.” If you ask city leaders, there are a few too many of these “eyesores” in Destin.

It was hard to believe, but Florida is the 22nd most expensive state in the nation when it comes to the cost of doing business, Bowyer shared.

That’s a tough pill to swallow.

So to spur economic development, the EDC and chamber of commerce are focusing on attracting “high growth/high wage” industries, such as smaller tech companies that could easily move into the available office spaces sitting vacant throughout Okaloosa County and Destin.

While there is no ”magic bullet” for economic development, Thursday’s speakers made one thing clear. They were all willing to put in the hard work and explore the options available to make Okaloosa County a great place to do business.

The beaches are beautiful, the waters warm and the amenities aplenty, so let’s see what happens when Northwest Florida flexes its collective muscle.

“It’s not just one group’s or one community’s responsibility,” said Kay Rasmussen from the EDC. “It’s done in a collaborate manner.”

I couldn’t agree more.

WHAT IS DESTIN FORWARD: Destin Forward is the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership program that gives participants a “behind the scenes” look at the city of Destin through various programs and educational opportunities. To learn more about the annual program, visit or call 850-837-2711.