CHIPLEY — Northwest Florida is positioned to be a leader in economic growth for the state, said state Senator Don Gaetz on Tuesday, June 18.
“We’re in the position to be a pathway of growth for not just Northwest Florida, but the entire state, in the next 10 to 15 years,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz (R-4th District) was in Chipley on Tuesday for a “Neighborhood Day,” visiting local officials and residents, starting with a visit to the Washington County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. He also set up shop at the county Agricultural Center to meet with residents, addressed the Kiwanis Club, and met with Northwest Florida Community Hospital administration to discuss health care issues.
Gaetz currently serves as President of the Florida Senate. He was elected to the Senate in 2006 following six years as Superintendent of Schools in Okaloosa County. His senate district includes Okaloosa, Walton, Washington, Holmes, Jackson and Bay counties.
When the senate district boundaries were redrawn, Gaetz inherited Holmes, Jackson and Washington Counties. “I won the redistricting lottery,” Gaetz said. “I grew up in the rural Midwest, and this is where I feel more at home, more than anywhere else in Florida.”
A resident of Niceville, he said the economy in Niceville is tied to the military bases, tourism and the hospitality industry. While having a strong economic factor such as a military base can be a blessing for a community, if the base is shut down then the community is severely affected.
“Every time Washington gets a cold, we wind up with pneumonia,” Gaetz said. Sequestration has resulted in hundreds of furloughs for employees of the military bases, which will affect those surrounding communities.
Tourism is also an industry that is subject to downturns. “If you have a lot of people drown, or someone sees a shark, that can have a huge negative impact,” Gaetz said.
Northwest Florida, however, is poised to be a center of industrial growth, given the opportunity.
“If you are looking to relocate your company, or your family, Northwest Florida has a lot to offer,” the senator said. “Taxes are lower here than in other parts of the state, as are living expenses.”
Area schools are good, and getting better, Gaetz said, and the recently enacted Career And Professional Education (CAPE) Act was designed to give Florida high school graduates a “diploma that has career currency in the workplace.”
Half of college and university graduates under 25 are unemployed or underemployed, Gaetz said. And having a high school diploma alone did not mean a student was qualified to get a job.
“This started when I was superintendent of the Okaloosa Schools, where we began the CHOICE Institutes,” Gaetz said. Since then, he has worked to “lash our education system to the realities and opportunities of the economy.”
Degree programs and high school studies need to prepare students for the real economy, and the CAPE Act will pay school districts $750 per middle school or high school student who receives an industrial certification while they are attending school.
“If Washington County School District does the same thing next year that they did this year, then under the CAPE Act the district would receive an additional $300,000,” Gaetz said.
Having students who are job ready upon graduation is also essential for future growth, not only in Northwest Florida, but throughout the state. Student education is key to attracting employers, especially employers on the scale of a Nissan, BMW or Toyota plant, such as Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina have landed in recent years.
Florida has been in competition for such facilities, and plans are underway for a megasite — an industrial site dedicated for use by a big employer such as an auto plant — to be located in Jackson County.
“My son, Matt, went on his own to one of these companies and asked why they chose South Carolina over Florida,” Gaetz said, referring to State Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton. “They were told by South Carolina that whatever community they located in, the state guaranteed that when the local graduates would walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, they would be qualified to go to work at that plant with no further training.”
Gaetz said colleges and universities should also start incorporating industry certifications into their training courses for students.
“We want our students to graduate with a degree or a diploma that gives them some real career currency,” Gaetz said.