The annual symposium, now in its 23rd year, connects attendees with an array of business and economic development ideas through a series of speakers and panels of experts. This year’s theme is "See Beyond."

SANDESTIN — Hundreds of business people, government officials and economic development professionals gathered Thursday at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort for the first day of the two-day Gulf Power Economic Symposium.


The annual symposium, now in its 23rd year, connects attendees with an array of business and economic development ideas through a series of speakers and panels of experts. This year’s theme is "See Beyond."


"We must see beyond the perceived roadblocks and the barriers that can make our dreams seem impossible," said Gulf Power President President Marlene Santos as she opened the event.


Santos said Gulf Power already has taken that theme to heart, working to build a more resilient energy grid across its Northwest Florida service area. Part of that work includes replacing almost 5,000 wooden utility poles with concrete poles, and using drones both as a means of assessing storm damage, and to proactively identify potential maintenance issues in good weather.


That proactive approach also was evident, symposium attendees learned, as local governments and other partners attracted ST Engineering, a massive aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility, to Pensacola International Airport. ST Engineering opened at the airport in 2018, after eight years of working with local and state officials and other entities.


But as early as 2000, the symposium audience learned Thursday, airport officials had anticipated, and planned for, just such a facility to be located at the airport.


And today, according to Rick Harper, economic adviser to Triumph Gulf Coast, the successful effort to bring ST Engineering to Pensacola is set to pay dividends across Northwest Florida, as the facility’s labor pool expands beyond Pensacola and Escambia County.


Triumph Gulf Coast oversees expenditure of funds recovered by the Florida attorney general for economic damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Harper said Thursday that the group’s board looks favorably on contributing to efforts like the work to bring ST Engineering to Pensacola, which included governments and other entities with "skin in the game" before Triumph Gulf Coast gets involved.


In fact, Harper said, the work to bring ST Engineering to Pensacola has become a model for partnerships, an approach moving far beyond "just a big blob of Triumph money falling into a community."


Harper was part of a panel that included Bill Hafner, chief integration officer for ST Engineering, Scott Luth, president and CEO of the FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, and Amy Holloway, founder and CEO of Avalanche Consulting, an Austin, Texas-based economic development consulting firm.


According to Luth, the effort to bring ST Engineering to Pensacola involved dozens of partners, and a key to the successful effort was that "everybody kind of identified where their strengths were, what their purpose was in the process, and how to work together."


And, Luth told the Thursday audience, "You can’t start early enough to build your target industry pipeline."


From ST Engineering’s side, Hafner said, the evidence of a well-coordinated partnership was a major reason that the company decided to locate in Pensacola.


"It was clear that the team had done this before," Hafner said. "That’s very comforting to a business moving to a new location."


"We wanted to be a world-class, next-generation operation," Hafner added, "... and that’s what we found in Pensacola."


Still, Hafner said, there were times when the array of partnerships involved with getting ST Engineering to Pensacola seemed daunting.


"When I saw all the contributors, there were many days when I thought, ‘Is this going to happen?’" he said. "It was a feat."


In a separate presentation Thursday, Holloway also invoked the mantra of partnering for economic development.


"There’s power in partnerships," she said, "and to me, that’s the next generation of economic development."


As with ST Engineering, Holloway said economic development projects today can be beyond the reach of a single government or single economic development group.


"We have to break down those silos," she said. "We have to work together."


Also speaking during the first day of the 2020 Gulf Power Economic Development Symposium was Mike Walsh, CEO of Tomorrow, a global consulting firm that works to help design businesses for the 21st century.


Walsh urged his audience to turn to the younger people on their work teams to ensure that they are preparing their businesses adequately for the future. Also, Walsh said, collecting and using data is key to successful business development.


"If you want to change old and stagnant ideas in your organization, data is your best friend," he said.


"The future is an invitation to all of us to think in an entirely new way," Walsh added, urging the symposium audience, "Think big. Think new. Think quick."