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Economic 'gardeners' seek bumper crop of new Florida jobs

We're not cultivating tomatoes or citrus, but we are talking about gardening. Economic gardening.

A statewide initiative called the Florida Economic Gardening Institute identifies and helps nurture small private companies with high growth potential in the Sunshine State. This is not a venture capital undertaking or a program for startup businesses with high failure rates. Now in its second year, the institute uses a program called GrowFL that targets so-called secondstage companies that survived the chaos of birth and now show great promise of expanding and creating jobs.

"In startups, they don't even know what they don't know," says GrowFL director Tom O'Neal. "In the second stage, at least they know what they don't know." The program estimates that after a year in operation the second-stage firms it has touched have added at least 425 jobs.

Not bad in a recession.

Seven Tampa Bay area firms made a list of 50 "companies to watch" statewide that GrowFL says show such growth potential. To qualify, the Florida businesses must be privately held, employ 10 to 99 workers and have between $1 million and $25 million in annual revenue.

One of them is Tampa's Enporion, an 11-year-old business that provides supply chain management services to the electric and gas utility industry. CEO George Gordon, who bought the company in 2009, says Florida's economic future lies with encouraging area businesses rather than lavishing incentives on out-of-state companies hoping they will relocate or expand here.

"The days of the great buffalo hunts are mostly over," Gordon said. "Corporations no longer decide to move 500 jobs to St. Pete or Tampa because that's where the CEO wants to live. The future of economic development is growing your own."

At GrowFL, Gordon gets regular exchanges with other CEOs and consultants on issues he thinks will best help Enporion grow. At times, he admits, the input is like drinking from a firehose. But he's a fan of the program.

The institute was created in a special 2009 session of the state Legislature as part of former Gov. Charlie Crist's push to create jobs. It received its first round of funding of $1.42 million in late 2009 and $2 million in a second round in 2010. It's based at the University of Central Florida under contract with the state.

Other area firms that made the "companies to watch" list say they are still figuring out how to use GrowFL.

In Pasco County, an Odessa-based provider of managed IT services called the Launch Pad hopes the program will help it improve its ability to win grants, says Megan Meisner, marketing and business development manager of the 28-person firm.

In Largo, Fred Nussbaum, chief executive of the 100-employee Lakeside Occupational Medical Centers, wants to tap GrowFL's CEO roundtables. The other four area firms are eBridge Solutions and Omnipoint in Tampa, FreightCenter in Trinity and Pharmaworks in Odessa.

GrowFL's O'Neal, whose other job is to help commercialize promising UCF research, says his program is cost-effective in creating jobs. Plus, those jobs are less prone to leave when other states wave incentive packages.

What's not to like?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Economic 'gardeners' seek bumper crop of new Florida jobs 01/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011 9:27pm]
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