LAKE BUENA VISTA
Florida's economic development leaders like to use the now-infamous Wall Street Journal headline "Is Florida Over?" to their own advantage. While the traditional response from a Florida Chamber of Commerce should be "No," Chamber CEO Mark Wilson instead likes to surprise his audience with an emphatic "Yes."
The Florida economy built on agriculture, tourism, sunshine and cheap labor that sustained the state quite well for the past 30 years is, indeed, over, Wilson says. And good riddance, perhaps, because Florida has relied too long on a "cheap" economy of low-wage jobs and second-rate education.
Now Florida must play catch-up to become more competitive. Big time. These folks are in a hurry.
At this Florida Chamber event attended by some 400 state business leaders, Tuesday's "State of the State" theme was all about hard choices. As in, it's time to make some. They ranged in conversation from questioning something as basic as Florida's arguably outmoded structure of 67 counties and 452 cities — inefficient and hard to streamline — to suggesting something as simple as restructuring Florida's Bright Futures scholarship to pay more to engineering than liberal arts students.
"Florida needs to start judging its economic competitiveness not against other states but against other countries," says Wilson, who spreads his sense of urgency with an evangelical intensity in a series of meetings taking place here at the Disney Yacht Club Resort.
To add a more concrete foundation to this mission, the Chamber on Tuesday unveiled a new statewide economic scorecard (check it out at www.TheFloridaScorecard.com). It's the first effort to create a one-stop shop of Florida economic data that will be updated as official economic numbers are released, including this Friday's state unemployment numbers from the Agency for Workforce Innovation.
Tony Carvajal, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, for now is the one-man band who will update the state scorecard (though that will change as the Web site matures). The scorecard aims to put anyone looking at the state of Florida's economy on the same page with the same official information. But the scorecard carries the promise of much more.
The chamber, an increasingly aggressive lobbying group in Tallahassee, wants to use the scorecard and dashboard dials as political tools. The group will tell the Florida Legislature and other arms of state government when Florida is slipping behind its 20-year goals. And the chamber may find it useful to bludgeon legislators whose actions hurt economic conditions in the state. Carvajal says the chamber will support those in office who help the economy, and work to unseat those who do not.
The mission, says chamber CEO Wilson, is to expedite Florida's migration to a higher-level economy. "We need high-wage jobs, which does not mean a call center worker who earns $20 instead of $10," Wilson says.
To their credit, the Florida Chamber and other business leaders at this gathering embrace a long-term outlook for Florida, a state rarely known for looking beyond the next tube of sunscreen. Still, trying to transform Florida from a lumbering tourism and retirement mecca into a go-to place for Ph.D. scientists feels like a task that will require much more buy-in, higher intensity and, yes, sacrifice, than exists today.
Better get started.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]