Crist bullish in Bay County visit
PANAMA CITY BEACH —
Gov. Charlie Crist talked up the new Panama City-Bay County
International Airport’s economic potential Monday and touted the
likelihood of a low-cost carrier’s arrival as he made his first tour
of the West Bay site before visiting Naval Support
The governor also squeezed in an appearance at an evening 2010 U.S. Senate campaign fundraiser, as Crist made his first official visit to the area since May, shortly before he announced his Senate candidacy.
Airport Authority officials have been actively courting a low-cost airline carrier — Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Okaloosa County and Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport also are pursuing one too — for the new airport ahead of its scheduled May 18, 2010, opening.
The airport near West Bay is expected to include about 1,400 acres of industrial space for use by aerospace engineering and other companies, many of them new to the Panama City area. The entire airport site sits on about 4,000 acres but currently is using only 1,338 acres.
Crist said he had talked to a lot of airline presidents about the new Bay County airport, and he sounded confident about the prospect of a low-cost carrier coming to Bay County.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a very hard sell,” Crist said as he stood outside the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Littoral Warfare Research Facility.
Reps. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, and Marti Coley, R-Marianna, accompanied Crist on his tours.
NSA-PC spokesman Steve Applegate said that, to his knowledge, it had been at least a decade since a Florida governor had visited the base. Crist said he wanted to visit as Florida’s CEO to show his appreciation for the military and the contributions service members make to the state.
Coley said Crist picked the airport site and the Navy base because of their importance in stimulating an economic resurgence here and across Florida, as the state struggles with record unemployment and a stagnant economy. Crist said the airport was the biggest economic engine he has seen in Florida for jump-starting a local economy.
“The airport, the military presence, all that will boost the economic recovery in Bay County and other parts of the state,” Coley said.
Bay County Economic Development Alliance executive director Janet Watermeier said Crist’s visit allowed the county to spotlight the new airport — as well as Bay County economic engines Port Panama City and tourism interests in Panama City Beach — as catalysts for regional growth.
She said previous national media exposure regarding the new airport has attracted inquiries from major employers about the area.
During the airport tour, Crist shook hands with construction workers, who then returned to working on the new airport’s terminal. After a tour of the terminal building, Crist arrived on base shortly after 4 p.m. and greeted a line of sailors standing outside the NSWC research building.
NSA-PC Cmdr. Jessica Pfefferkorn told Crist about the base’s estimated annual economic impact on the area — $654 million in Fiscal Year 2008 — and NSWC technical director Delbert “Ace” Summey gave the governor a brief overview of some of the center’s mine warfare research and counter-IED projects.
Crist also received updates on some of the center’s unmanned research projects, including a mine roller system designed to neutralize IEDs and an autonomous robot.
NSWC engineer Signe Redfield talked to Crist about the center’s involvement with the STEM program and working with area teachers and students on autonomous robot programs.
Before her autonomous robot demonstration for Crist, Redfield said she thought the governor would be interested in STEM and the education aspect of NSWC personnel working with students and teachers.
“Certainly my experience in the schools has been wonderful,” Redfield said.
Crist also spoke briefly about the statewide economy and its road to recovery, health care reform and reaffirmed his support for Florida State University-Panama City.
In April 2009, Summey told The News Herald the NSWC would be hiring 100 new employees in fiscal 2008-2009, with a considerable number of those engineers and scientists coming from the FSU-PC campus.
Last year, he said, FSU-PC generated 25 percent of NSWC’s engineering and scientific hires and 20 percent of this year’s, as of April.
Asked about FSU-PC’s future Monday, Crist cited the statewide need for a knowledge-based economy and stressed he was committed to keeping the Panama City campus open.