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DeSantis highlights investments in aviation infrastructure, workforce development during Pensacola visit

Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd at a July 1 press conference in Pensacola.

Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Pensacola on Monday to highlight state investments in Northwest Florida’s aviation industry — just two weeks after cutting almost one billion dollars from state lawmakers’ spending plan, including millions for projects in the region

During the press conference, DeSantis touted a trio of projects that received funding through the Florida Job Growth and Defense Infrastructure grant programs, and sought to contextualize them within his broader philosophy of economic development.

“As an executive branch, you're not a venture capital firm," he said. "... and so to pick and choose one company or another to invest in doesn't necessarily work. But I think what people recognize is a need to be able to support targeted infrastructure projects that can lead to job growth and business formation and development and workforce education opportunities that will lead to students being able to not only do well for themselves but also fill critical needs that we have in our economy here in the state of Florida.”

Those projects included $4.4 million for Pensacola State College's new Aviation Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics Program, $3 million for the final phase of the DeFuniak Springs Airport expansion, and a $500,000 defense infrastructure grant for Santa Rosa County's Whiting Aviation Park.

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At Pensacola State College, the funding will support the construction of a new hangar, training equipment, and operational costs at Pensacola International Airport, in collaboration with ST Engineering. The partnership aims to graduate over 150 FAA-certified technicians annually, with the ultimate goal of employing more than 1,700 people.

If successful, the program would fill a void. Across the 12-county Panhandle region, the aircraft manufacturing sector has seen 49% growth in the last five years alone, according to Florida’s Great Northwest. However, the market has failed to keep pace with the growing demand for skilled labor.

“We think there's a great opportunity in Northwest Florida with the college here," DeSantis said, "but also with a lot of the folks that come through here in the military. And as they leave the military, these are great opportunities for them as well. So this is really significant."

The funding announced at Monday’s press conference fits into a broader economic development strategy begun more than a decade ago to expand ST Engineering's presence in Pensacola.

That effort, dubbed Project Titan, includes the development of four hangars at Pensacola International Airport, designed to enhance the company's capacity for maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services. The third of those hangars opened just last month.

Despite DeSantis’s criticism of so-called “corporate welfare,” this most recent investment in workforce education is only the latest in a mountain of targeted public investments that have supported ST Engineering's growth in the region. That tally now stands at more than $210 million.

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Alex Kelly, Florida’s Commerce Secretary, praised these efforts.

“The team here in Pensacola and Escambia County is doing a phenomenal job attracting interest from the aviation and aerospace industries," he said, "but that doesn't work if you don't have the workforce.”

In DeFuniak Springs, funding will support the construction of new hangars, a taxiway, an access road, and associated utilities at the airport.

“A big piece of this is focused around research and development for advanced air mobility," Kelly said. "That's an emerging field, but it's one that's not going to emerge overnight. And having a foothold in research and development and having some ownership right here in Florida's Great Northwest is so critically important.”

Florida representative Shane Abbott, whose district includes DeFuniak Springs, emphasized the importance of workforce development to these efforts.

“Trained workforce is probably the number one attractant to businesses in our area right now," he said, "and so as we continue to develop that, we become extremely competitive.”

In Santa Rosa County, funding will support the creation of a secure double entry gate system at Whiting Field, enhancing security and maintenance operations by allowing aircraft to move safely between the base and the county-owned aviation park.

The investment builds on $12.1 million in state and federal funding that has already been committed to improvements at the park, where Leonardo Helicopters is investing more than $65 million to construct a 113,000-square-foot facility.

Kelly highlighted the importance of this project to the region.

“The team in Santa Rosa has done a great job in the last couple years attracting Leonardo Helicopters to Santa Rosa County," he said, "and to really maximize the value of that, there needs to be that close collaboration between Whiting Aviation and Whiting Field.”

Taken together, DeSantis said he hoped the investments would help to spur more private sector investment in the region’s aviation industry.

“We know that this area is synonymous with naval aviation," he said, "and we want to continue to build off the aviation theme here in Northwest Florida.”

T.S. Strickland is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, Entrepreneur and many other publications. Strickland was born and raised in Pensacola's Ferry Pass neighborhood and cut his teeth working as a newspaper reporter in the Ozark Mountains before returning home to work as a government reporter for the Pensacola News Journal. While there, his reporting earned a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors, one of the highest professional awards in the state. In his spare time, he enjoys building software products, attending Pensacola Opera performances with his effervescent partner, Brooke, and advocating for greenway development with the nonprofit he co-founded, The Bluffline.