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Economic group expands meetings

Following community complaints of being shut out, Enterprise Florida will hold hearings in Tampa Bay and other sites.

Moving to diffuse criticism, the state is adding four new sites, including in the Tampa Bay area, to its schedule of public hearings to create a long-range plan for improving the performance of Florida's economy.

When Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development group, first set up hearings for mid-June, it scheduled only three locations: Tallahassee, Orlando and Miami. But after a story about the plan in the St. Petersburg Times last week led to complaints from other areas of the state, the group is adding sites in the Tampa Bay area, Jacksonville, Fort Myers and the Panhandle.

"After the story came out, we talked about it more and we were getting calls," Enterprise Florida spokeswoman Catherine Deans said Monday. "The more we talked, the more it made sense to add locations."

Tony Villamil, director of the state's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, said last week that the Tampa Bay area wasn't left out, saying people can get their comments heard through the initiative's Web site (www.floridapartners.com).

But adding to the controversy, the Tampa Bay area is not represented in a 23-person task force in charge of creating a plan for attracting better jobs and improving the state's business climate. The group has leaders from businesses, government agencies and economic development groups in every other region of the state.

Villamil, whose office appointed the task force, said the membership will change over time, but that isn't good enough for Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd.

Todd wrote a scathing letter Friday to her fellow county commissioners, sending copies to Pinellas economic development officials, Hillsborough County commissioners and state legislators.

The lack of area representation "is both appalling and totally unacceptable!" Todd wrote. "To blatantly ignore the vital contributions to both the business and tourism industries by Pinellas and Hillsborough counties is either ignorant, naive or insulting!"

While Todd was pleased to learn Monday that a hearing will be held in the Tampa Bay area, she also wants area representation on the task force.

Todd hopes the leaders of the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions will write a joint letter to Gov. Jeb Bush, outlining their concerns, while Pinellas County economic development officials supply data to quantify how important Pinellas is to the state's economy.

"Perhaps Mr. Villamil and Enterprise Florida need to be reminded that our tourists come to Florida not only for Mickey Mouse, but also to enjoy the many natural and cultural amenities such as those they can find in the Tampa Bay area!" she wrote.

The snub is damaging, Todd said, "because resources follow a plan like this. This is going to map out the future of Florida industry, and the Tampa Bay area needs to be at the table on this."

There is no membership limit for the task force, which means members could be added from the Tampa Bay area, said Wynnelle Wilson, economic development incentive coordinator in Villamil's office.

"We didn't want the task force to be too large, but if we see a problem, we can change it," she said. "And if it's been decided more hearing locations are needed, more representation on the task force may be needed, too. We just haven't talked about that yet."

Enterprise Florida officials hadn't finished plans Monday to give business leaders and other citizens a chance to comment on how the state can improve its economic performance.

Tentatively, the Tampa Bay area hearing will be June 22, while hearings will be held in Fort Myers on June 23, Jacksonville on June 29 and in the Panhandle on June 30. The group plans to provide details this week.

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