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Bush proposal would shift tech strategy

For several years, critics have said Enterprise Florida doesn't do enough to help technology companies get started and grow.

Now, Gov. Jeb Bush is making moves to take most technology initiatives away from the state's public-private economic development group.

Bush's proposed budget would cut about $3-million from two Enterprise Florida programs that were designed to help young technology companies and to help manufacturers become more efficient.

State funding would be cut off from Enterprise Florida's four manufacturing technology centers, including one in Largo, and its seven innovation and commercialization centers, including one in Tampa. Last year, the manufacturing centers received $2-million, while the innovation centers received $880,000.

At the same time, Bush's top economic development official is backing a plan to create a permanent non-profit group called ITFlorida.com that would take the lead on technology issues in the state.

Last year, Bush created the Internet Task Force, which consists of technology executives, legislators and government officials, to figure out ways to make Florida more competitive in technology. The task force plans to ask the Legislature to authorize the creation of ITFlorida.com as a private entity.

"It's all part of having Enterprise Florida focus on one thing _ attracting and retaining industry," said Tony Villamil, chief of the governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.

Bush's proposed budget would freeze funding for attracting big-ticket corporate relocations at $4-million. Instead, more money would be focused on improving the state's climate for all businesses.

"In our exuberance to recruit out-of-state businesses and create a new high-tech economy, we must not forget Florida's home-grown industries," the budget proposal says.

A new $21-million Critical Industries Infrastructure Fund would help rural areas, the space industry and civilian businesses involved with military bases.

"We have to make rural areas more competitive for industry, because 80 percent of the land mass in Florida is rural," Villamil said. "The space industry offers great opportunity for growth. And if we can help military bases increase ties with the community, they'd be in less danger of closing, or we'd be in better shape to privatize if they closed."

The budget's other economic development highlight, work force development, is part of Villamil's focus on education. "You've heard about location, location, location for real estate," he said. "For us, it's education, education, education."

Bush's budget would increase funding to $6-million from $4-million for the state's Quick Response Training Program, which helps companies pay for training of new workers. The program gives preference to companies that are adding high-wage jobs or have a presence in a distressed urban or rural area.

Among recent recipients of help in the Tampa Bay area: Alliant Foodservice, which trained 194 new warehouse and administrative employees in Tampa, and Keane Inc., which trained 54 new information technology workers in Tampa.

"There was $10-million worth of requests last year, which shows how popular the program is," said John Ray, Enterprise Florida's chief lobbyist.

The budget would make relatively few changes in spending on other economic development programs. The state's "closing fund" for corporate relocation prospects would stay at $4-million, and total funding for Enterprise Florida would remain at about $27-million.

The budget for Enterprise Florida's international trade initiatives would be increased by $1-million. Part of that budget, which was $4.2-million last year, goes for high-profile trade missions led by Bush.

Following a schedule established last year, state funding for a tax incentive program for companies that add high-wage jobs would increase to $21-million from $16-million. Locally, the Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund Program has helped Chase Manhattan, Capital One and PriceWaterhouseCoopers make major expansions in Tampa.

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