Private Group Joins Economic Development Efforts

Jul 19, 2017

About three dozen businesses in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties are getting together to form a private-sector entity, aimed at supporting economic development in the two counties.

John Hutchinson, President of First Place Partners.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

First Place Partners has been in the works since last fall. The group’s president is former Gulf Power executive and Pensacola Chamber of commerce Chairman John Hutchinson.

“They’re a group of business people who used to be involved in business development back when the [Pensacola] Chamber [of Commerce] did economic development,” said Hutchinson. “They took economic development out of the chamber a couple of years ago, and that really did not give the private sector a place to participate.”

The 30-plus firms that have signed up for First Place Partners, says Hutchinson, represent businesses across-the-board.

“We’ve got law firms; we’ve got the big businesses – Gulf Power, Navy Federal; UWF is a member too,” Hutchinson said. “Any small, medium, large business we’ve got a good variety of those. We’ve also got a couple of individuals who have joined, just because they’re interested.”

High on the priority list is creation and the luring of jobs to EscaRosa. First Place Partners plans to work closely with Florida West and the Santa Rosa Office of Economic Development in business recruitment.

“We won’t do that ourselves; we will support their efforts,” said Hutchinson. “They need help sometimes with manpower. When they bring a prospect to town they want to talk with other businesses, and know about the business environment here. They need help sometimes in recruiting and working with site consultants. We’ll be able to provide that service, too.”

Scott Luth (R), Florida West CEO.
Credit Sena Maddison, Florida West

“[First Place Partners] is a new entity structured as a stand-alone organization outside the other entities that have been in the community working on economic development,” said Scott Luth, the CEO of Florida West, the economic development arm serving the western Panhandle. He says First Place Partners and its private sector businesses will serve as a support organization for the economic development process.

“Any good, successful economic development effort in a community has that partnership between the public sector and the private sector,” Luth said. This is really filling that need for that private sector support and involvement.”

Florida West is not structured to be a “membership organization,” or to have a committee structure says Luth. The power of First Place, he says, will be the ability to have memberships, membership drives and fundraisers, and working committees tackling economic development issues.

“Infrastructure needs in the community; the needs for additional sites and buildings throughout the counties,” said Luth. “They can be an advocate and support organization for workforce development and education initiatives.”

First Place Partners President John Hutchinson says their first committee will study sites and buildings.

“[The] Office of Economic Development-Santa Rosa and Florida West have told us ‘We need more sites and more buildings,’” said Hutchinson. “So when prospects come to town we’ve got something to show them.”

Other First Place Partners board members include Mark Faulkner of Baptist Healthcare; Kara Cardona at Navy Federal, Freddy Donovan, Baskerville-Donovan; Donnie McMahon, of McMahon-Hadder; Donna Tucker, Santa Rosa Chambers; Ed Carson of Carson-Lovell Construction; Carleton Ulmer, West Florida Hospital; and David Bear, the Lewis Bear Company.