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Engage. Connect. Grow.

Those three words were repeated more than once as Gulf Power kicked off the 20th Annual Economic Symposium this week at the Sheraton Bay Point Resort in Panama City Beach.

Stan Connally, Chairman, President and CEO of Gulf Power, welcomed more than 500 business and community leaders who traveled from around the region and state to be part of the event focusing on Northwest Florida’s economic future.

“We started this 20 years ago with a handful of business leaders with a vision to connect businesses together to grow our economy in Northwest Florida,” said Connally. “Today we speak with one voice to optimize the region as we grow together with a broader and more inclusive group.”

Connally pointed out to the group that the population has grown in region by 25 percent to more than 1 million since 1996. Northwest Florida, he said, is expected to need 101,000 jobs by 2030 just to keep up with the upward trend.

“We need to have a highly developed and highly educated workforce,” he said. “Right now 15 percent of the region lives in poverty and 25 percent of our students either graduate late from high school or don’t finish at all. So every job matters as we get ready for the future growth of our region.”

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Agreeing with Connally, was Governor Rick Scott, who ran for election in 2010 on the platform of job creation in Florida.

“We lost more than 800,000 jobs but have made a dramatic shift in job growth,” Scott told attendees. “Today our state has 3.2 percent job growth.”

Eastern Shipbuilding Group based in Panama City was highlighted as an example of bringing job growth and expansion to Northwest Florida. The family-held shipbuilding company recently landed a $10.5 billion contract — the largest in U.S. Coast Guard history — to build the first series of nine offshore patrol cutters, topping the biggest and best boatyards in the country in the process.

“This is a big win for Panama City, Northwest Florida, and the state,” said Scott.

The Economic Symposium is the one of the largest two-day event in Northwest Florida where leaders from the community come together to discuss how to advance and better leverage the region’s assets. This year, the theme is “Engage. Connect. Grow.” with an emphasis on bringing in not just the “usual suspects” economic development, such as Chamber of Commerce members, but also non-profits and faith-based groups.

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