DESTIN — Gov. Rick Scott brought his jobs message to the Panhandle on Tuesday, telling local business leaders he will keep his promise to make Florida the best state for job creation.
"This state is ripe for success," Scott said. "The expectations for our state are unbelievable right now."
The expectations are also high for Scott, who has promised to create 700,000 jobs and make Florida much more business-friendly by cutting taxes and red tape while building the nation's best-educated work force.
On the job just two weeks, Scott made a return trip to a struggling region that provided strong support for him in the election. It's an area desperate for jobs and hungry for an economic resurgence after the 1-2 punch of the recession and the gulf oil spill.
Tuesday's roundtable included hoteliers, developers, marina operators, accountants and lawyers, all with a stake in Northwest Florida's tourism and defense-dependent economy. The locals loved Scott's anti-regulation message and praised him for his executive order freezing many new regulations, giving the 45-minute discussion a campaign feel. (At one point, Scott said, "We're going to win.")
State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, ran the proceedings, describing the participants as "people who sign the front of paychecks" and Scott "the real deal" when it comes to creating jobs.
Gaetz is expected to be a key advocate for Scott's agenda in the Legislature, and he said that while Scott is saying all the right things, there is a hunger for more specifics. "I would say there's a significant anticipation as to, 'Okay, what are the details? What's he thinking about, fill in the blank,' " Gaetz said.
Steve Riggs, a politically active local CPA, said Scott's pro-jobs pitch is welcome, as is the fact that the governor and ex-hospital executive is not a professional politician.
"It's refreshing. It's different from what we normally hear," said Riggs, who described the state Department of Environmental Protection as the state's largest "terrorist organization."
Scott, still moving slowly at filling key administration posts, said he will introduce the new DEP secretary, Jacksonville executive Herschel Vineyard, at today's first meeting of the new Cabinet.
In the Emerald Grande resort, Scott told business leaders he is cold-calling chief executives around the country, asking them to move jobs to Florida. He said he is considering trade missions to Japan and Colombia this year.
While in Destin, Scott also hailed the decision by Vision Airlines, an Atlanta-based charter service, to offer daily nonstop flights from 20 cities to Fort Walton Beach, just across the bay from Destin. Among the 20 cities, flights will originate from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airports starting in April.
With its fleet of Boeing 737s, the airline sees a lucrative corridor flying vacationers to Destin's white sandy beaches from Knoxville, Louisville, Little Rock and other Southern cities, with one-way fares starting at $89.
The airline's Florida expansion was in the works for the past six months — long before Scott was elected in November. But a top company official said Scott's election was "the straw that tipped the scales for us."
Vision Airlines' chief operating officer, David Meers, told Scott his firm is looking at new locations for its aircraft maintenance operation, dangling about 500 good-paying jobs before the self-proclaimed "jobs governor."
"When can we talk?" Scott asked Meers jokingly.
Area economic development experts say the Vision Florida expansion will bring 4,200 "direct and indirect" jobs to the region, citing research by Northwest Florida State College.
"Only 695,000 more to go," joked state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Destin.
Scott said a friend compared him, and Florida, to NFL coach Bill Parcells, who gained a reputation for taking over football teams just as they were on the cusp of greatness.
"I hope that's true," Scott said.