Focus on Your Supply Chain Assets

Northwest Florida is reinventing itself as a logistics hot spot.

It's not every day that a new international airport opens for business in the United States. In fact, it's only happened once this century, and just a few months ago, when flights began arriving at and departing from the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), located in Panama City Beach. Since this month's theme centers on the idea of shaking off the doldrums of the recession and repositioning yourself for the brighter days ahead, the reinvention of Panama City serves as a lesson in how to leverage your supply chain assets to your best advantage.

Up till now, the area has predominantly been known for one thing and one thing only — its beaches. But tourism is not only a very seasonal industry but is also highly fickle, as Panama City learned the hard way earlier this year. Despite years devoted to planning and building the new airport, opening day came during perhaps the worst possible time: the BP oil spill. Even so, while tourism took a hit during the height of the oil spill imbroglio (though reportedly not a drop of oil ever actually hit the Panama City beaches), business traffic was a clear winner at ECP. The new airport is currently serving roughly three times as much passenger traffic as at the old airport, according to Randy Curtis, airport executive director. “We've got probably one of the fastest growing airports in the country here,” Curtis says.

The airport's development, and in fact its very existence, has little to do with the region sitting back and waiting for the government to throw money its way. Quite the contrary, the land for the airport was donated by a private business, The St. Joe Company, which specializes in economic development projects. St. Joe saw its donation of the land as a prime commercial opportunity to attract more businesses and industries to the area. (Disclosure: The media tour that I participated in was sponsored by St. Joe.)

The Florida Panhandle region is focusing its economic development plans on four industry clusters: transportation and logistics, renewable energy, aerospace and defense, and health sciences. The area already boasts what is believed to be the world's largest military base footprint, including Eglin AFB, Tyndall AFB, NAS Pensacola and the Naval Surface Warfare Center. And with the military presence comes numerous engineering and consulting firms affiliated with the A&D industry.

“Technology clusters in Northwest Florida will be our future,” says Glen McDonald, vice president of Applied Research Associates (ARA). The biggest challenge up till now has been the ability to recruit top scientists to the area, but the opening of the new airport, with daily flights from two major airlines (Delta and SouthWest) has gone a long way toward boosting the region's accessibility.

Panama City, Fla., actually got its name from the geographical fact that it is the closest U.S. port to the Panama Canal. As work progresses on doubling the Panama Canal's capacity by 2014, so too is Port Panama City, Fla., expanding its capabilities for handling break bulk, containerized and bulk cargo. A 250-acre intermodal distribution center serviced by rail is currently under development, notes Wayne Stubbs, the port's executive director.

Ultimately, how quickly and effectively Northwest Florida is able to recreate itself as a logistics center and technology hub will depend on the creativity and the perseverance of its workforce (a resurging economy wouldn't hurt, either). More to the point, the resurgence underway in the Florida Panhandle is the result of long-range planning with identifiable goals in sight. In short, it doesn't really matter what part of the country you inhabit, nor what industry you serve, as long as you focus on your core supply chain assets.

Best wishes to you in the new year.

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