ORANGE PARK – Frank DiBello is working to bring aerospace companies to Florida and Clay County has the potential to be involved in that growth.
DiBello, chief executive officer of Space Florida, was the keynote speaker for the June 8 quarterly luncheon sponsored by the Clay County Economic Development Corp., which works to bring high-skill, high-wage jobs to Clay County.
But before DiBello spoke, CCEDC President Bill Garrison gave guests a snapshot of the number of aerospace and aviation-related companies that already have a role in the Clay County economy.
Garrison said 83 companies and more than 600 employees work at the retired military airport in various facets of the aviation industry. Garrison then handed the podium over to Ted McGowan, the executive director of Clay County Port, the company that owns Reynolds.
McGowan started by mentioning recent advancements in potentially turning Reynolds Park into a regional airport.
“It’s a lengthy process, a multi-year process, that’s just beginning,” McGowan said, “so be patient.”
McGowan touched on several steps that would have to happen before the airport comes to life, but his attitude indicated that a regional airport is something that Reynolds is actively pursuing.
“I assure you that Frank DiBello and his Space Florida organization will be a vital part of determining what, if any, aviation or space-related activities will be developed there,” McGowan said. “Hopefully I’ll be back here someday explaining what those plans are.”
Applause welcomed DiBello to the stage as he began his presentation on the future of private aerospace companies in Florida.
DiBello was recently named Floridian of the Year by Florida Trend Magazine, an accomplishment touted at the lunch, but DiBello’s focus is not on personal achievement, but rather on progressing Florida’s aerospace industry into the future.
“This is probably the best time that Florida has had to grow its aerospace industry,” DiBello said. “The industry is looking to consolidate and they want to get out of high-tax regions and get out of expensive regions and so Florida looks very, very attractive for a myriad of reasons.”
DiBello cited private companies that are pioneering efforts in the nation’s modern outsourced space program. This includes Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has hosted several launches from the Cape, most recently a rocket that was successfully landed on a barge offshore. DiBello said this was a huge advancement, allowing companies to reuse materials that would typically be destroyed instead of safely landing, will be huge for cost cutting in aerospace testing.
Some of the other things on the horizon, according to DiBello, are several thousand satellites that will be launched into what’s called Low Earth Orbit and transmit the internet to boxes the size of the average briefcase. The project is being backed by Coca-Cola as the soft drink giant plans to install the boxes on Coke machines around the globe to provide internet access to the furthest reaches of society.
Other futuristic discussions provided insight into the future of drone-delivered packages and Uber for autonomous vehicles that will transport passengers through the air in an effort to reduce highway congestion.
With so much projected involvement in aviation and aerospace, DiBello mentioned that the industry is currently facing a potential shortage of workers.
“Our Achilles’ heel is workforce, believe it or not,” he said. “We’re working with Florida’s universities, vocational schools and even high schools to try and build a new breed of workforce through internship programs and apprenticeship programs.”
DiBello said education in Florida needs to see a major overhaul. He said students are forced to choose a major from an early age and never really have a chance to find where their aptitudes lie. He is urging high schools and higher education facilities to look to the aerospace industry for advice on what they need to keep Florida’s engineers and those with a proclivity for aviation and aerospace jobs in Florida and working for the companies that will be laying the groundwork for the next generation of space and aviation advancements.