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Florida's vision looks sadly familiar

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published October 2, 2003

I am looking at a comprehensive, expensively produced report from the Florida Chamber Foundation on the future of our state's economy that makes a number of important recommendations.

Improve the education system by reducing the dropout rate. Expand math, science and engineering courses. Strengthen cooperation between universities and industry. Encourage more venture-capital investment. Improve infrastructure. Link international trade and tourism to present a unified image of Florida overseas.

All admirable and timely suggestions. Except for one tiny problem.

These are the precise recommendations from 1989, when the Florida Chamber Foundation unveiled its first Cornerstone report on Florida's economy and how it should change to compete in the 1990s. As in the 20th century.

On Wednesday, the Florida Chamber Foundation released the final six chapters of its new study, three years in the making, called New Cornerstone: A Vision for Florida's Economic Future. It examines Florida's economy and suggests how it must change to compete in the coming decade. As in the 21st century.

The recommendations from 1989 and 2003 are almost identical. Look for yourself.

Florida's high school graduation rate was sorry in 1989; it still ranks at or near the bottom among U.S. states.

Florida lacked high-quality scientists and engineers in 1989, a critical component for building a tech economy, and the shortage is no less severe now.

Florida's bragging about generating new jobs in 1989 masked the fact that those jobs were mostly low-paying, menial work. Not much has changed today.

The similarity between the Cornerstone recommendations of 1989 and 2003 are alarming.

Was Florida's perception of economic progress in the 1990s little more than a Disney illusion? Florida sure got bigger, but did it get better?

Or should we conclude that Florida's economy, long built on the allure of cheap labor and theme-park and beach tourism, is so set in concrete that 14 years is not enough time to achieve substantive change?

Either way, Florida is still losing ground to other states and even other countries.

Wednesday, top state officials and business leaders gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Fort Lauderdale to release the final six of nine chapters of New Cornerstone. The first three chapters of the report were released in late 2001 and early 2002. The full report is available online at http://www.newcornerstoneonline.com

To its credit, New Cornerstone does not gloss over Florida's economic challenges. While the report praises Florida's broad appeal and a diverse and growing population, it also points out some contradictions:

"In a twist that has vexed a generation of business and government leaders, Florida must contend with some of the nation's most complex economic challenges: a chronic shortage of skilled labor, particularly in technology fields; stubbornly high workers' compensation, health care and other regulatory costs; growing gaps in performance between urban and rural regions; and a persistent global image as a place to retire and vacation, but not a place for business."

These challenges are not insurmountable, the report says, for a state that "tamed the Everglades, helped put a man on the moon, and turned a cow pasture into one of the world's leading tourist destinations in less than a generation."

The key, the report says, is to get Florida's collective resources behind a new effort to attain economic leadership.

I like the sentiment. But after 14 years of listening to the fiddling while Rome burned, who wouldn't be skeptical that New Cornerstone efforts will be any more serious?

Bill Habermeyer, chief executive of St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Florida, serves as chairman of the New Cornerstone's executive steering committee. He also happens to be the vice chairman of Enterprise Florida, the state's private-public partnership responsible for leading Florida's statewide economic development effort. (For the record, the creation of Enterprise Florida was one of the few concrete outcomes from the 1989 Cornerstone report.)

I spoke to Habermeyer about the New Cornerstone report and, more to the point, how its recommendations might be embraced better than its predecessor in '89. Here are excerpts from that interview:

* * *
Q: It sounds like Florida's got some economic potential - if it can get its act together.

HABERMEYER: Yes. We have a fairly narrow window of opportunity. Most other states that were heavily industrialized, such as those in the Midwest with autos or the Northeast with heavy manufacturing, are seeing fundamental change as their economies of the past are being replaced with knowledge-based industries. Florida does not have those legacy industries and is pretty well poised to move ahead.

Q: What stands out to you in the New Cornerstone findings?

HABERMEYER: I was not here when the first Cornerstone came out. But the most controversial chapter of the New Cornerstone was called "intellectual infrastructure" that showed our high school graduation rate was 45th in the country in 1999. We need more resources and to pay more attention to our education system. It's an investment we will have to make. It will prove to be a wise one.

Q: How do you raise wages in our low-wage state? (New Cornerstone's goal calls for raising Florida's per capita income from below the national average to above the national average by 2010.)

HABERMEYER: You need to have the workforce talent and to keep those people in the state. If we were to try like before and just attract more call centers, it's unlikely we would succeed because those jobs can be done elsewhere, even outside the United States. On the other hand, if we showed interest in developing cluster-type technology businesses ... I'm talking about the kind that are dependent on sharing ideas and require people being able to interact easily in their discussions about a product. Those kinds of good jobs will not be found to be moving offshore.

Q: How do you keep New Cornerstone from becoming just another dusty report?

HABERMEYER: The real test will be in the implementation. The state and private industry must share the responsibility and accountability. I do not know if these recommendations are all the right answers. But they are a good point of departure for looking at our state, for assessing the next 10 years. If New York was the state of the 19th century and California was the state of the 20th century, we want Florida to be the state of the 21st century.

* * *

A lofty goal indeed.

The New Cornerstone report is awash in recommendations for added funding and economic incentives. But in such budget-strapped times, where will such new funding be found?

The report gingerly touches on Florida's forbidden topic: taxes. Compared to competing states, Florida spends less than average on economic development, education and infrastructure. The report says the state "must stop underinvesting" in the foundations for its economic future.

"Economic development must be approached as an investment, not merely an operational expense," the report concludes.

When the 1989 Cornerstone report was unveiled, one Florida official said it "will become the rock on which our future economy stands." That line was uttered by Jeb Bush, then Florida's commerce secretary.

It's 14 years later. As Florida's two-term governor, Bush still wrestles with many of the same issues. He has been conducting his own series of nine meetings around the state seeking input on how to improve and diversify the state economy. The governor is scheduled to unveil that economic blueprint, dubbed the Roadmap to Florida's Future, in January.

Recommendations, it seems, are one thing not in short supply in Florida. This time around, maybe there will be less lip service and more action to strengthen the state's economic status.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached attrigaux@sptimes.com or 727893-8405.

Building blocks for strengthening the state's economy

The final six chapters of New Cornerstone, a comprehensive economic development plan for Florida, were unveiled Wednesday by the Florida Chamber Foundation, an affiliate of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The report, citing some daunting state problems, offers recommendations for the coming decade to help make Florida a more competitive state in key industries, raise per capita income levels above the national average and make Florida a more attractive place to live, work and do business.

The study cites 10 priorities over the next decade:

- Reducing the state's high school dropout rate, now topping 40 percent, to 25 percent or less.

- Overcoming Florida's poor business image overseas, developing a Whole Florida international economic strategy, boosting Florida-made exports.

- Streamlining the state's transportation system, from ports and airports to roads.

- Creating and funding a Thomas A. Edison Innovations program to encourage science and engineering enterprise.

- Increasing college and advanced-degree graduates in key science and engineering fields through funding and business partnerships.

- Nurturing the state's venture capital market to offer more consistent funding to entrepreneurs.

- Enhancing communities, from infrastructure to arts, to attract a high-talent population and higher-paying jobs.

- Ensuring affordable health care, child care, elder care and family support services.

- Expanding economic opportunities in the state's rural areas.

- Focusing the state's next generation of economic leaders on the themes above, so everybody stays committed to the same longer-term needs.

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 02:49:35]


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