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Push is on to help Florida grow up

Observing Florida try to mature is a lot like watching your own children grow up. Kids screw up and, good grief, so does Florida, but in time they all learn from mistakes and stumble on to adulthood.

It's time the Sunshine State stood up straight and became more competitive. It's hard, though. Like some kids, Florida gets cranky when faced with tough demands.

Still, I am heartened by a series of recent events that suggest Florida, already chastened by a severe recession, is at least making a genuine effort to evolve from the Land of the Spring Break.

Here are four things going on that may help Florida grow up. Combined, they are encouraging. But they are only a start:

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Florida Hall of Fame entrepreneur Wayne Huizenga caught wind of the efforts by the Florida Chamber Foundation, an arm of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, to come up with a real strategic plan for the state. A FedEx envelope recently arrived with a $1 million check from Huizenga's family foundation and a handwritten note saying the chamber was on the right track. A million bucks is the largest contribution ever for the foundation, a sum larger than its annual budget.

Dale Brill, who used to run the state's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, took over as Florida Chamber Foundation president in January. He says the money will speed efforts to work with communities statewide. The plan is to set longer-term goals and raise the bar on issues as diverse as education, innovation, economic development, infrastructure, business competitiveness, government and quality of life.

"Florida does not know what it wants to be when it grows up," Brill says. He jokes Florida can be viewed as 67 counties all growing up to become a state someday.

He's an advocate of bottom-up planning, a process of talking to Florida communities and empowering them with detailed data about their own economies. Communities can use the data to see their own strengths and weaknesses and compare themselves statewide. A former bureaucrat, Brill says building support in this manner works better than Tallahassee's unsuccessful tendency of trying to shove some policy "down the throats" of Floridians.

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Uh, oh. Not another study about regional jobs, industry clusters and workforce training. Let's hope this one is different, meatier and taken to heart, given its backing and expertise.

The U.S. Economic Development Association last week gave a grant of $540,100 to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and Tampa Bay Partnership. They in turn picked hotshot think tank SRI International and project leader Lynne Manrique to figure out what industries should be most important to this entire metro region in the future, what other businesses are key to eight individual counties from Sarasota north to Citrus, and what workforce programs need to happen to be sure we have trained workers to fill those preferred jobs.

There's a certain deja vu in these goals. But Avera Wynne, planning director at the area regional planning council, says the economy is changing, we need fresh input, and we have better data to work with. The key, he says, is the emphasis on involving area schools, tech schools, community colleges and universities in the results — due next March — to create a curriculum for a relevant, trained workforce of the right size.

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Smart growth initiatives are blossoming that aim to reconfigure Tampa Bay and Florida into places that accommodate and offer better quality of life to millions more people migrating here in the coming decades.

Some of those efforts, like Tampa Bay's One Vision, are practical projects built with input from thousands of area residents. Others, like the current public TV series (now playing locally on WEDU) called Imagining a New Florida, conjure up more gauzy visions of what this state might look like with less sprawl, fewer strip malls and a recommitment to Florida's natural beauty.

Still others include regional economist Richard Florida, whose 2003 appearance in Tampa spawned Creative TampaBay. His new book, The Great Reset, discusses the rise of megaregions (like Central Florida), the decline of homeownership (what's wrong with renting?) and the shift away from a car culture (bring on improved mass transit).

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On Thursday, the Hills­borough County Commission approved a ballot question that will ask voters in November if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for an improved mass-transit system composed of rail, buses and roads. In Tampa, 108 days earlier, President Obama awarded $1.25 billion to kick off a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. Business leaders are rallying quickly around what could become, with good leadership, a major game changer in the regional economy.

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If the good times were still rolling in Florida, if the state's population still grew by hundreds of thousands every year, if the unemployment rate was under 5 percent and not over 12 percent, and if just a handful — rather than a third or more — of Florida homeowners were stuck with mortgages bigger than their homes are now worth, few if any of these projects, studies, documentaries, books and transit projects would get much attention.

But Florida's Great Recession has more people rethinking what went wrong and what might work better. Who knows? Eventually, the state just might grow up.

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

Push is on to help Florida grow up 05/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 2:27pm]

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