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[Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
From left, Ridgecrest Elementary School fifth-graders Kalani McDaniel, Julian Lara and Garrick Chan work in the McDonald's section at Enterprise Village.

Work at play

At Enterprise Village in Largo, fifth-graders experience the pressures, fun and confusion of running a business. They will face a lifetime of intense competition for educational and work opportunities as the graduating class of 2008, the largest and most diverse in U.S. history.

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


LARGO -- At this Bank of America branch, the morning line suddenly snakes out the door. Tellers, some more courteous than others, furiously punch their computer keyboards handling transactions. Savings officers, file clerks, a bookkeeper and branch manager are all in high gear.

The smell of MONEY is in the air.

Sound familiar? But something's different.

This busy BofA branch is run by 10- and 11-year-old kids, and a few briefly trained but still wide-eyed volunteer parents (myself included) who quietly wonder this Tuesday morning: What on Earth are we doing?

We are at Enterprise Village, a remarkable complex on Starkey Road in Largo that exposes fifth-graders in Pinellas County to the pressures, fun and confusion of trying to run a business.

Each budding Bill Gates of Microsoft or Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard is assigned a specific job at one of 18 or more prominent Tampa Bay area companies.

This year, in a large room arranged like a town square, about 17,000 students will get their one-day shot at free enterprise.

The fifth-graders' goal: to help run a business, pay off a bank loan and try to end the workday with a profit. And along the way, get "paychecks" and spend Enterprise Village "dollars" as a member-in-training of America's great consumer nation.

How best to describe the next few hours of nearly 100 kids in hyper-biz mode? Organized chaos? Entrepreneurial propaganda? Shopping boot camp? Kid capitalism?

And on this Tuesday, which company will emerge as the big profit winner? Will it be Florida Power or Home Shopping Network? Paradyne, Eckerd Drugs or McDonald's? Time Warner, Q105, Kane's Furniture, Verizon or the Enterprise Village Times newspaper?

We've come a long way from the old front-yard lemonade stand. At Enterprise Village, we're ready for serious business.

Most of these fifth-graders don't know it yet, but they are demographically special. They will make up part of the high school graduating class of 2008, the largest and most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history.

That means each of these youngsters faces a lifetime of intense competition for educational and work opportunities.

Ridgecrest pupils Jeanette Rouisse and Elliot Simon try their luck as television hosts in the Home Shopping Network section at Enterprise Village.

After more than a decade of stability, the nation's high school graduating classes began to grow dramatically in the late 1990s. That boom will continue until at least 2008 when the country's high school graduating class is projected to reach an all-time high of 3.2-million.

Nationwide, that number's up 26 percent from 1996. But Southern and Western states will experience the most growth of young adults.

Increases in excess of 30 percent are expected during this period in Florida and five other states: Nevada, Arizona, California, Georgia and North Carolina.

The bad news: That's a lot of young folks emerging from the public school system at once.

The good news: By 2008, there will be 161-million jobs nationwide, a Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast says, but only 154-million workers to fill them.

Enterprise Village was created in 1989 by a group of educators, community and business leaders and the Pinellas County Education Foundation. It resides in the Gus Stavros Institute, a center for practical experiences in economic education. Stavros, long known for his philanthropy and energetic pro-business attitudes, is a former Foundation chairman and the founder in 1960 of Better Business Forms of Pinellas Park.

Stavros made his millions when he sold his company to Florida Progress in the late 1980s.

Enterprise Village was the brainchild of Howard Hinesley, now superintendent of Pinellas County's schools, who visited a similar facility in Kansas City, Mo., owned by the Hallmark Corp.

Stavros led a fundraising effort through the Foundation to build a local version.

Enterprise Village is an inside mall built around a town square.

When the village opened 12 years ago, the kids ran Barnett Bank and sold Yellow Pages for GTE. Keeping up with the economic times, the village bank is now Bank of America. Verizon serves as the phone company.

Before fifth-graders visit Enterprise Village, they prepare for weeks in their classrooms. They learn concepts of profit and loss. They learn how to write checks and keep an account balanced. They learn the value of advertising and marketing.

They learn you can't spend more money than you have. (Well, they are just fifth-graders. Maybe we should all go back to school.)

About two weeks ago, my wife and I joined other dozens of parents in a morning training session for volunteers at Enterprise Village. Stavros Institute director Keith Gall, a former principal of Safety Harbor Elementary, told us what to expect the following week when the fifth-graders were scheduled to show up.

He also gave us the secret code word to help us in a time-pressured day with so many youngsters: No.

Each student has a clearly defined job. Some are company managers and earn $6 per "paycheck." Others (those willing to handle a lot of adding and subtracting) are company bookkeepers who, for $5.50 per paycheck, pay their employees and company bills and must reconcile all costs with revenues. Other jobs, typically paying $5 per paycheck, range from bank teller to modem installer to energy auditor to retail clerk to food server.

On Tuesday, Enterprise Village was invaded by fifth-graders (including my son, Paradyne bookkeeper) from St. Petersburg's Lutheran Church of the Cross and Largo's Ridgecrest Elementary schools.

Along with some 40 other parents and adults, my wife and I donned red volunteer smocks and got a quick refresher course in what would occur that day at Enterprise Village. Four of us were assigned to Bank of America to help guide 10 fifth-grade bankers for the day. My wife headed to Kane's Furniture.

To the village's credit, the day is highly structured. Kids know their job roles in advance and get involved at once. Businesses that are selling goods -- donated items ranging from pens and pencils to hats, stuffed animals, lunch bags, small toys, T-shirts and the like -- must price them realistically for the day. These are the items each worker will shop for as consumers during their three allotted breaks.

Like a real community, Enterprise Village also has its own mayor. Voting takes place. Morton Plant Mease hospital workers stop by to encourage free health check-ups. United Way collections are made.

Enterprise Village runs on a computer system. When a worker brings a paycheck to deposit at Bank of America, the funds are recorded in the system. When the same worker buys something at another store and writes a check, the store clerk can check the worker's account and then deduct the sales amount.

With just three paychecks in the day, kids learn quickly to save for any bigger-ticket item.

At first, the fifth-graders are excited. They have anticipated their day at the village for weeks.

At Bank of America, the bookkeeper is under pressure most of the day to keep up with a rising pile of bills and checks to pay. When early bill collectors from Verizon and Time Warner stop by, the bookkeeper quickly learns that key business phrase: "Come back later."

Tellers soon learn their job is feast or famine. Everyone seems to come at the same time to deposit their paychecks. The weeks of training pay off.

"Please endorse your check."

"What is your account number?"

"Would you like a dollar bill or four quarters?"

Then the bank customers are gone and things can get kind of s-l-o-w and b-o-r-i-n-g.

By the time the third break rolls around at midday, when the kid-run McDonald's serves hamburgers and Chicken McNuggets, some of the bank's employees can't quite seem to get back on the job right on time.

And it's so hard deciding between that cool water bottle selling at Paradyne and that neat pin on Home Shopping Network when there's only enough money left for one more item.

Kind of like the real thing.

By midafternoon, economic activity at Enterprise Village ends. Businesses "close" and figure up how they did for the day. A town meeting is called.

How did we all do?

On this day, all but one business manages to earn enough to pay off their bank loans and squeeze out at least a modest profit. This time, Paradyne made the most money. Blockbuster Video remained in the red, but would have made a buck with just a bit more time to sell.

If it were only that easy!

The volunteers remove their red smocks. We are dog-tired and aren't sure why. The day went quickly, in a flurry of assisted transactions, quick evaluations and kid control.

As the town meeting breaks up and kids head for home, there is a general sense of accomplishment and fun.

Even the kids, the toughest critics, got plenty out of this day.

Another 100 or so fifth-graders were scheduled to test their economic skills the next day. Another 100 after that.

At Enterprise Village, there are no bankruptcies. No business closings. That rougher reality stuff is not part of a fifth-grade lesson plan. And that's okay.

For these kids in the Class of 2008, there will be plenty of time later to learn from the school of hard knocks.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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