Manufacturing may be the next fastest-growing business sector in Northeast Florida, based on current interest in the area from companies looking for the best place to open or expand their operations.
The trend is driven by how the coronavirus pandemic changed the office market, said Aaron Bowman, senior vice president of business development at JAXUSA Partnership, the regional economic development division of JAX Chamber.
“Manufacturing is probably our strongest sector post-COVID. Before, about 65% of the inquiries were from companies that needed office space. Now, that has flipped. About 65% is related to manufacturing, transportation and logistics,” Bowman said.
Another factor driving the trend is the continuing strong migration of population to the state and the region from people seeking a better quality of life and opportunities.
“More than 1,200 people each day are moving to Florida and more than 100 per day are coming to Jacksonville. Companies realize where people want to live and what areas are growing,” Bowman said.
“Retirees are going further south. We are getting the younger crowd. They are more interested in where they live and they figure out where to work when they get here.”
Bowman specializes in recruiting advanced manufacturing and aerospace firms. He recently returned from the annual Farnborough International Airshow in England, where he saw a change in how prospects view Northeast Florida.
“There is an amazing amount of interest from aerospace companies. When we went there 10 years ago, we were begging for meetings. This year, people were asking us for meetings. We had 27 in three days,” Bowman said.
The business regulatory climate also is driving increased interest in the state and region, said Lake Ray, president of the First Coast Manufacturers Association.
“We are getting calls from prospects in the Northeast, particularly Connecticut and New Jersey. They tell us they want to expand, but the local government there is anti-business. We are business-friendly, so people are looking at Northeast Florida,” Ray said.
The current negative trend for the manufacturing sector is the challenge created by supply chain issues.
Components and raw materials sometimes may be difficult to acquire when needed to keep production moving. Delivering finished products to distributors and retailers can take longer than usual, based on ground transportation availability.
“Manufacturers feel the effects coming and going,” Ray said.
The association works with manufacturers having trouble on the front end of the supply chain situation to help them find other sources.
“If the widget you need is sitting on a ship, maybe we can find someone to make an equivalent widget,” Ray said.
Bowman and Ray said the region is positioned better than other parts of the country in terms of supply chain issues.
There is no backup unloading cargo ships, and the JaxPort infrastructure improvements, such as the recently completed channel deepening and the pier extension, put the area near the top of the list for manufacturers looking for new sites, they said.
“America is not going to stop manufacturing and companies like to come to Northeast Florida to manufacture,” Ray said.
Bowman said another indicator of continuing Northeast Florida growth of the sector is warehouse development.
More than 4 million square feet of space suitable for manufacturing and distribution is under construction. About half is already under contract for occupancy and the rest will be available for future prospects.
“We are in a good spot. It’s a good time to be in my shoes,” Bowman said.