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Santa Rosa County's growing industrial parks could be economic boon for region

Annie Blanks
Pensacola News Journal

The Santa Rosa Industrial Park off U.S. 90 is bustling on a sunny Monday morning. 

Tractor trailers line the street on Industrial Boulevard, spools of cables are stacked in side garages, large shiny warehouses reflect the November sun onto the cars filling the parking lot. 

Around 30 different companies call the Santa Rosa Industrial Park home, employing 2,000 people locally. And Santa Rosa County has spent the last several years scooping up property in East Milton and beyond to try and replicate the success of the original park, hinging its bets on a growing workforce and close proximity to military bases to try and draw national and international industries to small town Milton, Florida. 

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“Santa Rosa County is no longer a bedroom community to Escambia County,” said Shannon Ogletree, the county’s economic development director. “My goal in the next 10 years is that if people live here, they work here. They don’t have to go to the neighboring county and spend their dollars and increase the tax base of a neighboring county.”  

Santa Rosa County officials are exploring ways of expanding the county-owned industrial parks, and other possible futures uses planned for the citizen-owned parcels.

The three other industrial parks in the county — Santa Rosa Industrial Park East, Northwest Florida Industrial Park at I-10, and Whiting Aviation Park — are relatively empty for now, but county officials hope that won't be true for much longer. 

The county is in talks with at least eight companies who are interested in calling Santa Rosa County home, which, if they pan out, could put Milton on the map nationally, bring more jobs to the area and solidify Santa Rosa County as the industrial hub of Northwest Florida. 

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“This could help us continue to thrive,” said Erica Grancagnolo, associate director of economic development. “This will make sure that when families move here and children graduate high school here, they can go to college or maybe get a trade certification and there will be a variety of high quality jobs so they can stay local.”

Leonardo Helicopters is 'most exciting' prospective company right now 

Perhaps the biggest project on the county's radar, the one outgoing commissioner Don Salter said he is "most excited about," is the Whiting Aviation Park, located adjacent to Naval Air Station Whiting Field and the future home of Leonardo Helicopters. 

Santa Rosa County officials are exploring ways of expanding the county-owned industrial parks, and other possible futures uses planned for the citizen-owned parcels.

Santa Rosa County has been courting the company for about a year due to its promise to build a support center at the park if it won the Navy's bid for helicopter production, which it did in January. 

In August, the county broke ground on a $9 million infrastructure project at the facility in order to prepare for Leonardo's arrival. The project includes earthwork and installation of sewer, water, electric, stormwater and roadway infrastructure. 

“Leonardo really puts us on the map,” Ogletree said. “Leonardo is in Italy, Philadelphia, and now Milton. Just putting us with those other two locations puts us up there. It’s not the biggest project in terms of job creation, but I would say, in my view, it’s one of the most exciting.”

The maintenance facility will provide up to 50 high-paying aviation maintenance jobs and is expected to grow even larger once it moves in. 

“I’ve always been passionate about the military, and making Whiting Field more efficient whenever possible,” said Salter, a Vietnam War veteran. “The Leonardo helicopter company coming to Whiting will help make the base more efficient. Not only will it create jobs, but the base won’t have to fly their aircraft to Mississippi for certain types of maintenance work.”

Projects Lionheart, Yummy, Runner and more still in the mix 

Leonardo may be the most exciting company to come to Milton, but more companies are in the process of calling Milton home. 

Project Runner, which has been kept under wraps as the county keeps trying to negotiate the deal, has been in talks with the county for more than two years about opening up a facility at a private park near I-10.

Ogletree said the talks have hit a snag in the past few months as the company deals with the economic fallout of COVID-19.

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“We just met with them recently. Their industry was pretty heavily hit because of COVID, but we’re still chatting with them, still trying to pull that across the finish line,” Ogletree said. 

Ogletree says the Runner deal would bring up to 400 "high-paying" jobs to Santa Rosa County, with salaries that start at $46,000 a year. The average wage in the county is $16.80. 

Project Lionhart was also a big win for the county, with the medical manufacturing company Lovell Government Services announcing its intention to build at the I-10 Industrial Park last year. It’s expected to break ground early next year, becoming the I-10 park's first tenant. 

Other projects currently under negotiation for the county include:

  • Project Yummy, a distribution company, at the I-10 Industrial Park 
  • Project Induction, a manufacturing company, at the Santa Rosa Industrial Park East 
  • Project O'Brother, a manufacturing company, at the Santa Rosa Industrial Park East 
  • Project Cask, a distribution company, at the I-10 Industrial Park 
  • Project Atlas, a manufacturing company, at the Santa Rosa Industrial Park 

If all the projects on the table end up coming to Santa Rosa, they will bring at least 845 jobs with them, Salter said, which is important in helping Santa Rosa County keep its rapid growth rate.

Ogletree said most of the other projects are still moving "full steam ahead" in discussions with the county because they were not as heavily impacted by the pandemic as Runner was. 

Santa Rosa County officials are exploring ways of expanding the county-owned industrial parks, and other possible futures uses planned for the citizen-owned parcels.

“They’re not necessarily office space-type corporate projects, these are distribution companies, manufacturing and aviation companies,” he said. “Obviously they still need facilities and they’re still moving forward.”

Salter said he plans to continue supporting economic development in the county, even after he leaves office on Nov. 16.

“I think it’s important to have those jobs here in the county, so people can work where they live and where they play,” Salter said. “It’s obviously important for our children and our grandchildren to be able to have opportunities in the future and be able to stay here in the county, if that’s what they choose to do. And many of them do.”

 Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.