Today, the path to a brighter future for Florida passes through the door of a new two-story building on downtown St. Petersburg's waterfront. SRI International will open a 37,000-square-foot laboratory three years after local and state officials wooed the California-based nonprofit with a collection of incentives. It's the latest milestone in a concerted effort, launched in 2003 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, to make Florida more than a land of home builders, beachgoers and agriculture. Particularly in the aftershocks of the Great Recession, the ribbon-cutting is worthy of celebration.
The dour economy has hit Florida's major industries particularly hard. A glut of empty homes suggest it will be years before demand returns for the state's construction industry. Tourism is down and it's unclear when it will return. Optimists argue it's only a matter of time. The state's sunshine and lack of an income tax will inevitably become a magnet for new residents.
But returning to what was Florida's status quo for nearly a century — relying on an influx of new residents to sustain the economy — isn't possible or desirable. Cheap housing is gone, if for no other reason than hurricane insurance. And a broken tax system — its weaknesses laid bare by the halt in new residents — undermines the state's ambitions. Florida lawmakers expect to cut another $2 billion from the state budget next year, even after accepting the last round of federal stimulus dollars.
But SRI and similar high-tech companies offer an alternate economic driver keyed to the future: innovation. In particular, SRI is looking to translate maritime research into commercial applications. Current projects include developing better underwater security sensors for protecting ports.
A robust high-tech sector in Florida ultimately would mean better paying jobs, more intellectual capital and a stronger, more diverse state economy. That's what Bush envisioned — even before the recession — when he cobbled together $500 million to lure an outpost of California biotech leader Scripps Research Institute. In Scripps' wake, albeit with taxpayer-financed incentives, has come SRI, Burnham Institute, Torrey Pines Institute, Max Planck Institute and Draper Laboratory, among others, that have formed robust partnerships that also enrich our educational institutions.
As SRI opens its permanent home today, Tampa Bay joins in celebration. And the entire state is banking on its success.