It’s important not only to bring new dollars into a community with businesses big and small, but to ensure the mix helps diversify the local economy.
It’s one thing to ensure businesses are strong. Quite another to bring in new ones, large and small, infuse new money and diversify the economy. That’s the task Scott Luth has.
As a young man, Luth was always interested in business, but it was his future father-in-law who sparked his interest in community and economic development.
Now the CEO of FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, Luth has for the past six years used that spark to fire up the Pensacola area economy, leading efforts to attract and recruit new industry and commercial development, retain and expand existing businesses, support entrepreneurship, develop the workforce, and much more.
Luth’s journey into the business world may have begun as a child growing up in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb just outside Columbus, a city that serves as sort of a bellwether for new and expanding businesses.
“We were sort of one of the first places where chain restaurants and new technology were launched,” Luth said. The Columbus metro area was the first to have such innovations as talking vending machines and bowling alleys with digital screens, Luth said, adding that test marketers felt “if folks in that area would like it, so would the rest of the United States.”
After graduating from high school in Westerville, Luth attended The College of Wooster, a small private school for which he played football. Within the first year, how- ever, Luth’s parents had moved to Florida, and Luth decided he liked Tampa’s winter climate a lot more than Ohio’s blizzards. He resumed his college studies at Hillsborough Community College.
When his younger brother won a chance to play football as a walk-on for Mississippi State University, Luth followed him there to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business management. It was there that Luth met his future wife, Michelle McGilberry, whose father, Dr. Joe McGilberry, headed up the university’s Food and Fiber Center and later its Extension Service.
“He worked with a lot of small businesses, agricultural businesses, and that was my introduction to working in economic development on behalf of communities,” Luth said.
Luth graduated in 1991 and spent the next decade or so in the follow- ing community and economic development organizations in Mississippi:
- Southwest MS Planning and Development District, Natchez
- The Alliance, Corinth
- Panola Partnership, , Batesville
- Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce, Cleveland
In 2005, he was tapped to serve as executive vice president of Glasgow-Barren County Industrial Development Economic Authority, Glasgow, Ky. Two years later, he was back in Mississippi, this time as a business development manager for Entergy Mississippi, Inc. in Jackson.From there, Luth was recruited by the president of the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce to serve as its senior vice president of economic development.
At that time, the chamber was an umbrella organization for three areas: Tourism, community development/quality-of-life, and economic development. That’s huge under- taking for a single organization such as the chamber.
Tourism, of course, is a primary economic driver in the region, as it is in most Florida coastal communities. Community development efforts focus on workforce development, education, beautification, retail development, and “making a community a place where people want to come,” Luth said. While the existing businesses such as stores, coffee shops and insurance agencies are critical to the life of the community, the dollars they generate mostly recirculate, Luth explained.
Six years ago, FloridaWest was born, spinning off from the chamber so it could devote itself exclusively to economic development and bringing new dollars into the community.
“Economic development is where you work to grow your business sector or bring in new businesses,” Luth said. “We work with businesses whose products and services are sold outside the region. Our job is to increase the wealth of the community.”
And while economic developers certainly pursue the big projects, they also help develop smaller ones.
“It’s not so much the size of the company,” Luth said. “It’s what they do. Even a one-person company – we work with them as long as they have plans to sell outside the region or globally.”
It’s important not only to bring new dollars coming into the area but also to diversify its economic base.
First Covid-19 and most recently Hurricane Sally delivered double whammies to the tourism and travel industries. “The hospitality and tourism industries are continuing to struggle and look for ways to come back,” Luth said. But other aspects of Pensacola’s economy have remained strong, he added.
To strengthen the economy even further, FloridaWest is pursuing a detailed five-year strategic plan with the overarching commitment to “have direct involvement in new projects (business locations, expansions, or incubation graduations)
that result in an average of 400 documented new jobs per year, for a total number of 2,000 documented new jobs by 2023, all with wages above the state average wage ($44,790 in 2017).”
FloridaWest has targeted its busi- ness development efforts on:
- Manufacturing – Advanced, aviation, chemical processing, marine services, and MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft)
- Cybersecurity and information technology – Corporate locations, cybersecurity, financial and back-office services, and research and development.
Aviation and cybersecurity, in particular, are industries that are ingrained in Northwest Florida’s military presence, what with NAS Pensacola, long known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” and Eglin Air Force Base, which, among other missions, “serves as the focal point for the Combat Air Forces in electronic warfare, armament and avionics, chemical defense, reconnaissance and aircrew training devices,” according to the base website.
“Both of those [industries] have a long history here in Pensacola with the military, since the early 1900s for aviation and the 1960s for cybersecurity,” Luth said, adding that cybersecurity was known “back in the day” as cryptology.
The spark that lit a fire under Luth’s economic development career may, if he has his way, even help launch a regional industry in space exploration. When Space X splashed down in the Gulf waters near Pensacola in early August, astronaut Doug Hurley revisited the town where he originally trained for his aviation career. Pensacola recently applied to become headquarters host of the U.S. Space Command, under which the new Space Force, Air Force and other military branches will operate in space.
“It’s not only aerospace, but it’s also space,” Luth said of the area’s assets and experience. “We’ve trained half-a-dozen astronauts. Pensacola has a long and rich history of supporting the space industry.”
– Martha Simmons