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Agency touts accomplishments

Seeking to answer questions about its $94-million in spending, Enterprise Florida Inc. officials told lawmakers Wednesday that the agency has created thousands of jobs that added millions to the state's tax base.

Then Enterprise Florida president John Anderson told senators his group is recruiting an ultimate economic development prize: the first U.S. manufacturing plant for German carmaker Porsche.

Enterprise Florida representatives met with Porsche officials in Germany last week about opening a plant in Jacksonville or somewhere in Northeast Florida. Much about the plant remains a mystery. Anderson doesn't know how big it will be or when it might open.

Anderson told senators at a special hearing Wednesday that Enterprise Florida and the state have been the "only U.S. contact that has been made with the company."

In an interview published Sunday in a German newspaper, Porsche chairman Wendelin Wiedking confirmed his company was looking for a site for a U.S. plant. Porsche follows two other German carmakers _ Mercedes-Benz and BMW _ which have opened plants in the Southeast in recent years. Competition for such plants is stiff and Florida has not been at the top of automakers' lists for plant sites.

Senators didn't let the new plant prospects distract them from their own agenda of holding the agency accountable.

"It's a start," Sen. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota, said after the hearing. Many questions remained unanswered, she said, adding that she plans to submit them in writing to Anderson.

Harris and other legislators have been hounding Enterprise Florida for progress reports and for justification for its spending as they consider continued funding of the agency, which last year took over the duties of the Department of Commerce.

Several lawmakers have said they won't vote to continue funding for the group unless it justifies its past funding. This year, Enterprise Florida is slated to get $25.8-million in direct funding and to oversee another $68.6-million in state grants and other funds for economic development.

Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Commerce & Economic Opportunities Committee, which Harris chairs, was the culmination of months of sometimes heated exchanges between lawmakers and Enterprise Florida.

Given the stormy past, this meeting was relatively cordial. Anderson repeatedly apologized for transgressions ranging from not communicating with legislators to getting a senator's name wrong on a graphic.

"I probably need to get a little button up here to press whenever I appear before you all that says "I apologize,' " Anderson said. "It's getting a little embarrassing."

Unlike past hearings, this time Anderson at least had some answers to lawmakers' questions. Among other things, he told them that in the past nine months, Enterprise Florida has:

Created about 15,700 new jobs that pay an estimated $746-million in wages.

Added $22-million to the state tax base through job creation and business expansion.

Raised $960,000 in cash in private funding from businesses and a total of $20-million in private funding including in-kind contributions ranging from airline ticket vouchers to free advertising.

Private funding has been one of the biggest points of contention among legislators. By state statute, Enterprise Florida is required to raise at least $1-million in outside funding in the fiscal year that ends June 30, according to Anderson. By the year 2001, at least half of its funding must come from private sources.

Anderson said the group is already exceeding those requirements.

Along with answering senators' questions, Anderson late Tuesday submitted written answers to questions raised recently by several state representatives. Lawmakers will continue to discuss funding for the economic development agency over the next several weeks.

For his part, Anderson figures Enterprise Florida's relationship with lawmakers is improving.

"I (think) they finally believe we are sincerely trying to respond to their questions and concerns," he said. "And what I noticed is starting to happen is that some of the senators were actually saying "Let's really start talking economic development.' "

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.