It all started as a conversation between neighbors.
At least that's how Dr. John Holdnak, president of Gulf Coast State College (GCSC), starts the story of how international aerospace company GKN Aerospace decided to locate its new manufacturing facility in Bay County.
In getting to know her new neighbor, Becca Hardin, executive director of the Bay Economic Development Alliance, learned he just happened to be the retired CEO of GKN North America and still had close ties. Hardin, who through the EDA had been focusing on developing leads related to the new airport, as well as the port and shipbuilding, invited her neighbor over to talk. And it was there, over a dinner table, that a deal to bring a major aerospace company, $50 million in investments and at least 170 new jobs was born.
"Becca is an awesome general," Holdnak said.
Holdnak, GCSC, and Florida State University Panama City were brought to the table early, he said, as a way to show off what capabilities already existed in Bay County. A few months later, he was giving a group from GKN Aerospace a tour of their manufacturing program. There, he laid a deal out on the table.
"Let me make an offer to you," he remembered telling them. "If you will commit to come, I will develop a program around your industry needs, and I will help recruit students to go into this program and train your workforce."
The offer was a connection that GCSC, FSU Panama City, Haney Technical Center and Bay District Schools have been building on ever since.
If you've flown in a plane, Holdnak said, you've looked out a window made by GKN Aerospace. And if that plane landed, odds are parts in that landing gear came from them as well. They deal in high-end composites and specialized manufacturing, and Holdnak said they've been using the school's Engineering Technology Program to address the initial skill gap between what's taught at the college and what GKN — and other manufacturers like it — will need. Eventually, he said, they'll be rolling out a program in advanced technology techniques, where students will work with these high-end composites early on.
But the college isn't looking to build just around GKN Aerospace. GKN's parent company makes automobile parts, and maybe someday they'll set up shop, too, Holdnak said. Like an anchor store in a strip mall, GKN Aerospace is a "hub manufacturer" — meaning other businesses use their parts and move in around them. This announcement and this activity, Holdnak said, will bring other projects down the pipes and — most importantly — more jobs to the region. Gulf Coast, he said, will be there not only to train their workforce, but to provide a quality overall education for their families.
FSU Panama City
While he's only been dean of FSU Panama City for seven months, Randy Hanna said he's excited about how the college will rise to meet the needs of GKN and other companies that might follow. They'll be expanding both their educational and research opportunities, he said, and growing programs primarily in the engineering field. To help boost the region's workforce, he said, they're looking at adding two or three programs in engineering, as well as a systems engineering degree and possibly a mechanical engineering degree.
And it's not just engineers these companies will need, but managers and administrators. For that field, Hanna said he wants to strengthen FSU Panama City's business programs and possibly bringing back graduate-level business courses. To accommodate new students, Hanna said the school will continue to bolster its student activities, such as intramural sports, to keep students invested in campus life.
"I believe other companies will follow GKN," he said. "It's the start of something huge for Bay County."
Haney, Bay County
At Haney Technical Center, which already has a thriving aviation program, Director Ann Leonard said the school is "very excited" about the possibilities GKN and other companies will bring. In addition to GCSC and FSU Panama City, Haney and Bay District Schools came to the table with a two-pronged approach. Haney, she said, will be there to help train GKN's workforce, while the K-12 system is an incentive for families of employees who will be moving to the area.
Haney started its aviation program in conjunction with the new airport, Leonard said, in the hopes there would be jobs available in the field. The economic downturn slowed things, she said, but finally they're seeing the kinds of opportunities for which the program was created.
"We're looking forward to partnering with them and pleased to be a partner in the overall process," she said.
For Holdnak, the GKN project is just the start of what he said will be "most incredible growth" seen in this region. It's the "whale everyone has been trying to land all these years," he said, the answer to the people wishing companies would give Bay County and Northwest Florida a chance.
"This is the opportunity we've been hoping and hoping for," he said. "They're coming."