Dean Barber

Watch Florida

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Relentless.

That is the new catchword. It sums up a new ideology that Gray Swoope is attempting to ingrain into the mindset, the corporate culture of the economic development community of Florida.

Hired by Gov. Rick Scott, himself a believer in making sweeping changes to foster job growth,  Swoope became the CEO and president of Enterprise Florida in February, after proving to be more than capable as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s right hand man in the fine art of industrial recruitment.

Knowing that the task before him would mean that he would be seldom at home, Swoope decided that his family should remain in Mississippi while he took to the road in Florida to preach a new kind of message – Florida, which has not be competitive in the past in winning projects, is now going to compete and even prevail over neighboring southeastern states.

Keep in mind that economic development in the Southeast, where I first cut my teeth on the craft, is quite different than other parts of the country, where it is more process oriented. In the Southeast, economic development is more akin to SEC football – fast and hard hitting.

So when Swoope prompted an audience of economic developers and site selection consultants, myself included, to repeat the magic word, those familiar with his mantra repeated the word “relentless.”

Of course, relentless refers to the pursuit of the deal and closing the deal, which has always been Swoope’s strongpoint. And aggressively competing for deals is now a new foundational strategy as is the expediting of permitting and reducing the number of regulations that have historically thwarted a competitive business environment.

The message is this is not your father’s Florida. A new day has arrived, in which business attraction is emphasized by dismantling regulatory barriers and making deals happen. Swoope sees the announcement of 500 jobs for a Time Warner facility in Tampa as “a shot across the bow” of all the state’s competitors.

Importing Aggressive Talent

But it’s not just Swoope instilling a new aggressive attitude. Florida, particulary Northwest Florida, has of late been importing a bevy of talent from other southern states, all of whom have proven themselves at the art of the deal.

They include two friends of mine from Alabama – Neal Wade, former head of the Alabama Development Office and now a senior vice president of economic development at The St. Joe Company, the largest landowner in Florida – and Ed Gardner, who held various positions in economic development in Alabama and is now the point man for PowerSouth Energy Cooperative based in Destin.

Also in the past year, Don Kirkman was recruited from  the Piedmont Triad Partnership in North Carolina to take the reins as president of Florida’s Great Northwest, and Jim Hizer came from Bowling Green, Ky., to become the president and CEO at the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. Hizer was successful in luring Scott Luth from Entergy Mississippi to become the organization’s senior vp of economic development.

Last month, Barry Sellers came from Arkansas to head up the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce . He told me the presence of Swoope and Wade were contributing factors in making the decision in making the move.

Melissa Medley, who had been the chief marketing officer at the Mississippi Development Office and served with Swoope, rejoined her old boss in Florida. About the same time that Swoope came to Florida, Rick Weddle left North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park to lead Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.

The point is this: These economic developers from surrounding southern states have a track record of success and I think they will prove to be historic change agents in Florida. Indeed, they came to Florida to be just that. No doubt they will leave some hurt feelings along the way, but they will get things done.

“There is a fervor to economic development in the Southeast that it never reached the same level in Florida in years past,” said John Krug, a site selection consultant a former resident of Florida.

“These experienced economic developers who really understand their trade craft that are willing to stake their careers by coming here is an indication that they see an incredible opportunity here,” said Krug, vice president of Charlotte, NC., based Development Advisors.

A New Florida in the Making

But again, keep in mind that Florida has to a great extent not been a serious player at economic development. Rather, it has been the sunshine state, a mecca for tourism, retail, and real estate development.

“I believe there has been a perception that Florida may have become complacent,” said Kirkman, president of Florida’s Great Northwest. “But the recession has caused Florida to reflect and to understand that it has to be more aggressive. It has to be hungrier.”

Swoope’s hiring and the arrival of Neal Wade and other ED professionals is not coincidental and it sends a message of a new Florida, Kirkman said.

“The state is repositioning itself to be very competitive, particulary for the kinds of projects that have been migrating to the southeastern United States over the past 20 years. Florida will be part of the mix now,” he said.

Krug agrees that something new is afoot.

“Under this new administration, there is a much more aggressive approach toward finding deals and closing deals. It is much more proactive business development approach than I’ve seen in all my experience in Florida,” Krug said.

Don Schjeldahl, a site selection consultant with the The Austin Company, based in Cleveland, said he was somewhat surprised that economic development in northwest Florida has taken on the aggressive, grassroots feel of neighboring states.

“It’s a refreshing change,” Schjeldahl said. “The only other area where you find that in Florida is the probably the Jacksonville area. Down in central and south Florida, economic development organizations tend to be more the mouthpieces for the real estate development industry.”

I would agree with Don that the entire state is unlikely to catch fire with Swoope’s relentless philosophy. Indeed, there remains large swaths in Florida where I would be hesitant to take a corporate client (unless it was their idea) because they retain a mindset bent on commercial real estate development and tourism. But these are places with little or no manufacturing tradition, and where skill sets have not been developed. That’s just the way it is.

But that is not the case with Northwest Florida. While I arrived there on Thursday, I had questions. By the time I left on Sunday, I had answers, that this would be a viable place for some projects. It took me no time to pick up on that Scott/Swoope/Wade gang have big plans. I cannot tell you all of those plans for reasons of confidentiality, but I am telling you this: Watch Florida.

Cowboy Boots and Telephone Chats

Job growth is occurring there, something that appears to be periodically discussed in telephone calls between the Gov. Scott and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who must be friends or they wouldn’t be talking with such frequency.

After giving a forceful but soft-spoken speech on his humble background and his intention to create a business atmosphere that will foster job growth by cutting regulations, Gov. Scott worked the room to say hello to economic developers and be introduced to site selection consultants.

When the governor came to my table, he soon learned that I was from Texas and somehow the focus was shifted to his cowboy boots, which he was proud to show me. They were adorned with the state flag of Florida and I must admit that they did look fine with his suit. I think I told him that my estimation of him had risen considerably because of his choice in footwear.

Struggles Ahead

But boots aside and despite the governor’s laser-like concentration on job creation, huge challenges remain. The Florida housing market faces a “long and arduous road to recovery,” according to a recent Wells Fargo Economic Commentary, with more foreclosures forecast.

“The return to a ‘normal’ housing market, where supply and demand are in balance and prices are rising 2 percent to 3 percent a year, is still, unfortunately, years away,” Wells Fargo reports.

That in itself means that Florida has a long struggle ahead.

Based on what I saw and heard in Northwest Florida this past weekend, I am optimistic that Gray Swoope’s message will catch on and the economic development in Florida, or at least parts of Florida, will gain that hard and fast hitting SEC edge.

Of course, one of two things eventually will happen – this talented group of imported economic developers will either succeed in changing the competitive landscape for Florida or they will leave to return to other playing fields where the name of the game truly is relentless.

Need a partner in results-oriented site selection?  Contact me, Dean Barber, at 972-890-3733 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com  Barber Business Advisors, LLC is a site selection and economic development  consulting firm in Plano, Texas. Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com

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