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Florida chamber seeks (again) to forecast the future

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


Florida can become a major economic power over the next decade, but first the state will have to erase shortages of technical research and skilled labor.

Timely remark? You bet. Too bad these remarks were made 12 years ago as part of a comprehensive study of Florida's economic future.

Where did the past dozen years go? Why is Florida still in the same low-tech pickle?

The 1989 study, dubbed Project Cornerstone, was the brainchild of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Its recommendations helped change a lot in Florida's economy, including the demise of the state's Commerce Department in favor of two public-private, business-promoting groups: Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

Cornerstone had its limits. It flattered Florida's economic status with lots of A's and B's, when B's and C's might have been more on target. It predicted great things for Florida's space technology market -- something that's yet to happen. It failed to foresee the Internet and made no mention of e-commerce as a factor in Florida's future.

Maybe that's why Cornerstone "2" is under way, thanks to the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The chamber's board of governors will preview the study's findings next month at an Amelia Island retreat. Details should start trickling out to the public this summer.

Joe Richardson, one of our out-of-the-limelight local business executives, chairs the new study's steering committee. Richardson ran Florida Power Corp. in recent years, then quit after the electric utility became part of North Carolina's Progress Energy Corp.

Richardson has since swapped old for new economy.

Symbolic? Perhaps. He now works as chief executive of Tampa's young Airvata Networks, a provider of broadband telecommunications services. And unlike Florida Power, whose profitable return as a monopoly was set by state regulators, Airvata competes in an increasingly rough part of today's tech market.

Call it a metaphor for Florida's daunting economic future. While the state has enjoyed job growth and an unemployment rate lower than the nation's, per-capita income has declined. Ten years ago, 63 percent of Florida students graduated from high school. Today, just 56 percent graduate.

Ahead, Florida's tired pitch that "we're a low-cost state for business" won't cut it any more as the foundation of the state's economic model.

There's still a lot of work to do.

Short takes

WHAT LOOKS LIKE AUSTIN 25 YEARS AGO? Tallahassee thinks it does. And, in another sign of growing metropolitan competition for technology business, Florida's capital city wants to follow in the steps of Texas' capital city to become a haven of semiconductor activity. Tallahassee's economic development folks spent part of last week in Austin learning from the Lone Star masters of tech. This week, Tally's eager chip hunters are in Germany, Taiwan and Singapore. . . .

MCVEIGH'S OUT. NUDITY'S BACK. Tampa's Entertainment Network Inc. can drop its higher-brow arguments now to try and Webcast the upcoming execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. After vowing to appeal a court ruling prohibiting the Webcast, ENI chief David Marshlack this week says his lawyers just don't have enough time. Guess it's back to ENI's bread-and-butter business: Voyeurdorm.com and Dudedorm.com. . . .

WORK -- GOOD. RETIREMENT -- BETTER. In the First Union deal to buy Wachovia Corp., here's a twisted offer. Wachovia chief Bud Baker will get $1-million plus bonuses as chairman of the merged bank. But if Baker retires early, he gets at least $2-million a year for life. See ya, Bud. Who says shareholders have a say in the companies they own? . . .

SUCKING UP UNIVERSITY RESEARCH? Plant City's Utek Corp. already has a pipeline into Tampa's University of South Florida to market university-generated ideas as potential commercial products in the business world. This week, Utek snared the University of Miami in a similar deal. Anybody else out there who wants to purchase Florida's professorial brains? . . .

SHOW US THE MONEY. Birmingham, Ala., business phenom Donald Watkins may want to buy the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But before things get serious, he'll need to show the team owners the size of his wallet. Watkins, who in December ended his lifelong allegiance to the Democratic Party, is a lawyer who has represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also is a business entrepreneur and the head of the recently started Alamerica Bank -- still a very tiny bank.

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

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