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Economic Indicators for Florida's Big Bend region

FSU looks to spin off businesses from its research. Elsewhere in the region, energy companies and gambling facilities are creating jobs.

Florida's Big Bend Region

Tallahassee/Leon County

SunnyLand Solar's 'solar sausage'
SunnyLand Solar's "solar sausage" is an inflatable solar-energy collector that costs 1/20th and weighs 1/50th of a traditional system. The technology was spun off from FSU research. [Photo: FSU]

Leon County aims to emerge from the recession by leveraging the area's strength in higher education to recruit businesses and launch startups, says Beth Kirkland, executive director of the Economic Development Council for Tallahassee/Leon County.

Florida State University has made strides in converting its research into startups, spawning two companies, SunnyLand Solar and SolarSink, from FSU-developed solar technology. A $15,000 FSU commercialization grant and federal and state funds helped get the businesses off the ground. Both companies are expected to create about 35 jobs in Tallahassee, according to the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce.

Eunice Cofie worked with the chamber to establish her new business, Nuekie.
Meanwhile, the Chamber offers an Entrepreneurship Excellence Program that links entrepreneurs with seasoned business professionals. Eunice Cofie, a 31-year-old Florida A&M University graduate, is starting a company called Nuekie that sells dermatology products. Thanks to the chamber's program, she secured lab space through FSU's startup incubator to work on product development. And for the first time, Tallahassee hosted a conference for local startups called Startup Weekend.

Event Photography Group, better known as subsidiaries GradImages and MarathonFoto, chose to expand in Tallahassee last year after the purchase of Bob Knight Photo, adding 50 jobs to the region.

The first phase of a 72-unit, housing, retail and entertainment complex called College Town near FSU broke ground in January and is expected to deliver a boost to the continued revitalization of nearby Gaines Street, a major thoroughfare. The total project is expected to cost $17 million.

Businesses to Watch

» Bing Energy: The transplanted California company arrived in Tallahassee early last year with much fanfare. Gov. Rick Scott appeared at a news conference to welcome Bing, which is receiving $1.9 million in state incentive money. Using technology developed at Florida State University, Bing produces membrane electrode assemblies, the brain of fuel cell technology. The company has 16 employees in Tallahassee and expects to add 24 more by the end of the year. The goal is to eventually have more than 240 employees. "Everybody is really happy with the decision to come to Tallahassee," says CFO Dean Minardi.

Leon Population: 283,675
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 1.14%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
16.43% 7.41% 38.01% 28.01% 10.15%
Per Capita Income: $37,503

MSA Dec. 2011 Dec. 2010 % Change Jobless Rate
Tallahassee 177,874 175,005 1.6% 7.9%
Source: Agency for Workforce Innovation

Homes - Single-family, existing-home sales
MSA 2011 Sales 1-Year Change 2011 Price 1-Year Change
Tallahassee/Leon 1,992 +7% $160,200 -5%
Source: Florida Realtors; year-end sales, median price

Leon County Consumer Bankruptcies
2010 2011 Change
707 612 -13.4%
Source: National Bankruptcy Research Center

Madison/Suwannee/Hamilton Counties

New York-based meat processing company Stahl-Meyer agreed to relocate to Madison county and hire up to 100 people. [Photo: Stahl-Meyer]
Agriculture is the biggest economic driver for these rural north Florida counties, which have struggled with high unemployment. Madison and Hamilton counties in particular have posted double-digit unemployment rates that are higher than the state average.
Madison County scored two economic development wins last year: New York-based meat processing company Stahl-Meyer agreed to relocate to the county and hire up to 100 people; and Annett Bus Lines is building a facility and will employ 20.

Suwannee County has a new status as a "wet" county following an August vote to allow the sale of hard liquor for the first time since 1946. Changing will create more jobs at bars and restaurants, proponents say, and enhance the county's economic development efforts.

Hamilton County voters will decide in April whether to approve slots at Hamilton Downs Racetrack, joining two other north Florida counties in their quest for slots. Susan Ramsey, director of the Hamilton County Development Authority, says bringing slots to the county could entice tourists off Interstate 75. The county will also get a new truck stop this year that will employ up to 25, and officials hope to bring a 70-megawatt solar farm, pending legislative action, this year.

Madison Population: 19,322
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): -0.03%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
18.06% 6.13% 25.18% 34.02% 16.60%
Per Capita Income: $26,376

Suwannee Population: 42,798
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 1.22%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
19.06% 5.95% 22.19% 33.09% 19.71%
Per Capita Income: $30,714

Hamilton Population: 15,032
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.42%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
15.98% 6.27% 29.60% 33.87% 14.28%
Per Capita Income: $19,431

Gadsden/Wakulla/Lafayette/Jefferson Counties

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians teamed up with developer David Romanik to open a poker and horse-racing gambling center in Gadsden County, bringing 180 jobs. [Photo: Creek Entertainment]

These counties rely heavily on state government in nearby Leon County and enjoy a lower-than-average unemployment rate, but some have succeeded in broadening their economic base in the last year.

Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director David Gardner says the county scored its biggest business-recruiting win ever when Melbourne-based National Solar Power agreed in September to build a solar farm in the county that will employ 120. The 4,000-acre farm is valued at $1.5 billion.

National Solar Power will build a 4,000-acre solar farm in Gadsden County. [Photo: National Solar Power]

A new horse racing and poker facility opened in the Gadsden County town of Gretna in December, bringing 180 jobs. There are ambitious plans to build a resort casino with a hotel and slot machines — which voters approved in January.

In Wakulla County, business boosters want to enhance the county's reputation as an eco-tourism destination by opening Wakulla Springs to recreational diving. The springs, located within Wakulla Springs State Park, offer a labyrinth of underwater caves estimated at 30 miles long. But a proposal to open the springs is under review by the state because of environmental and safety concerns.

Lafayette County is partnering with other north Florida counties to build an industrial park. Jefferson County officials were relieved that lawmakers decided to keep the state prison — the county's largest employer — open. "It represents 6% of all the jobs in our community," says Jefferson County Economic Development Council Executive Director Julie Conley. "It's all anybody is talking about or thinking."

Cave diving in Wakulla Springs

Gadsden Population: 46,881
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.30%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
20.50% 6.11% 24.29% 34.89% 14.21%
Per Capita Income: $30,082

Wakulla Population: 32,373
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 2.63%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
18.32% 5.96% 26.94% 37.36% 11.42%
Per Capita Income: $32,213

Lafayette Population: 8,992
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 1.52%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
17.19% 5.41% 32.52% 31.86% 13.02%
Per Capita Income: $18,452

Jefferson Population: 15,089
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.82%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
15.99% 4.93% 23.05% 38.16% 17.87%
Per Capita Income: $32,041

Taylor/Gilchrist Counties

Buckeye Technologies/UF biomass plant
The Buckeye Technologies/UF biomass plant began operations this year in Taylor County. [Photo: Buckeye Technologies]

Bo Taff
Bo Taff, a senior vice president at Foley Timber and Land Co., says Foley is setting aside 45,000 acres in Taylor County for developmen [Photo: Ray Stanyard]
In January, a new biorefinery plant was dedicated in Taylor County in partnership with local employer Buckeye Technologies and the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says Scott Frederick, director of the Taylor County Economic Development Authority. The county also finished long-term development plan Vision 2060, incorporating plans by Foley Timber and Land Co., the largest landowner in Taylor County, to set aside 45,000 acres for business or residential development, says Bo Taff, a senior vice president at Foley.

Gilchrist County lost one of its major employers, a Coca-Cola water bottling plant, about a year ago and is working to bring in a new bottling company, says Kyle Stone, executive director of the Gilchrist County Chamber of Commerce. To encourage businesses to relocate to the area, the Gilchrist County Industrial Development Authority meets regularly to discuss tax incentive programs. The county's economy relies on agriculture, though it has also developed an international reputation as a cave-diving hotspot thanks to its 42 natural springs.

Taylor Population: 22,828
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 0.52%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
16.59% 5.00% 26.14% 35.65% 16.62%
Per Capita Income: $27,868

Gilchrist Population: 17,665
Population Growth Rate (2008-12): 1.27%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
17.50% 7.78% 23.40% 33.51% 17.82%
Per Capita Income: $33,488