Southwest leads the way to economic growth
By SCARLET SIMS | News Herald Writer Florida Freedom Newspapers
SANDESTIN — Capturing Southwest Airlines as the low-cost carrier at the new international airport is just the beginning of boosting Northwest Florida’s economy, local leaders said Thursday.
“The next decade is going to be our decade,” said Janet Watermeier, Bay County Economic Development Alliance executive director. “Never have the global opportunities for Northwest Florida been greater.”
During the second annual Fall Leadership Summit, a daylong conference in Sandestin, hundreds of businesspeople and local leaders talked about working together to grow the economy.
Southwest Airlines announced earlier this month its plans to begin serving the new Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport in May. The decision remains the talk among leaders.
Southwest hopes to expand the Panhandle’s tourism industry exponentially by convincing people who might drive to Northwest Florida to fly instead, said keynote speaker Bob Montgomery, Southwest’s vice president of properties.
Southwest is known for its low airfare. Northwest Florida has some of the highest fares in the region, but those are expected to drop when Southwest begins selling tickets in December. Low prices create a demand and that means more people will come to Northwest Florida, Montgomery said.
Other carriers will consider the new airport, said Cynthia Kennedy, Walton Area Chamber of Commerce member.
Airport Executive Director Randy Curtis said plans for the airport include construction to accommodate cargo planes. The airport also hopes to draw international travelers, Curtis said.
“It will take the entire region to make it work,” said Jerry Ray, a St. Joe Co. vice president. “What Southwest does for us is provide a global network.”
St. Joe is the major property holder in Northwest Florida and a major partner with Southwest. The company agreed to repay Southwest should the airline lose money during the first three years of operation at the new airport.
Southwest looked at serving the entire region when the company chose Bay County’s new airport, Montgomery said. Talks with the other regional airports, such as the one in Pensacola, will continue, but Southwest plans to focus on Bay County, he said.
Keynote speaker Brian Wilson said the airport and Southwest offer a golden opportunity to the region. Wilson is a veteran reporter for Fox News and part-time area resident.
“I believe that this particular part of the Florida Panhandle is poised for great things in the not-so-distant future,” Wilson said. “This is the right place, and the right time is just around the corner. The world is about to beat a path to your door.”
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