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Design for Fla. business growth

Establish a $60-million venture fund for Florida startup companies.

Give Gov. Jeb Bush $50-million to lure new businesses to the state.

Bring the Free Trade Area of the Americas Permanent Secretariat to Miami.

These were a few of the recommendations in Enterprise Florida's hefty Strategic Plan for Economic Development released Wednesday. Based on feedback from nine meetings held around the state last fall, the report tries to plot a course into the future with a goal of diversifying the state's economy and raising wages.

Though job creation has been robust in Florida and the state's unemployment rate has consistently been lower than the national average, pay levels haven't kept up. Earnings in Florida today are about 88 percent of the U.S. average.

The group spearheading Florida's strategic plan hopes to raise state wages to at least 92 percent of the U.S. average by 2009, in part through its recommendations. The task force was chaired by Secretary of State Glenda Hood; Darrell Kelley, Enterprise Florida's president and chief executive; and Susan Pareigis, director of the Agency for Workforce Innovation.

Among the group's eight recommendations:

Capitalize on the potential of Scripps Research Institute's expansion to Florida to attract other life sciences businesses.

Protect the state's defense and manufacturing industries.

Target rural areas for economic stimulus.

Move away from a current growth management system that is often seen as hindering "smart growth."

With a few notable exceptions, the report put no dollar figure on the cost of its recommendations. Winning the bid to put the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami, for instance, was seen as critical to making Florida a global leader in commerce, but cost of the campaign was not mentioned.

To upgrade the state's work force skills, the group proposed an "On-Line Institute," but again, no price tag was put on the project.

Two exceptions were the plan's call for $50-million for a Quick Action Closing Fund of cash incentives for companies that might relocate to Florida. During a special legislative session last fall, an effort to put $190-million in such a fund was soundly defeated.

Another specific request was for $60-million to be allocated to three venture funds, each of which would require a match from private or federal sources.

One fund would tap wealthy angel investors in the state for infusions of up to $350,000 in Florida startup companies.

Tate Garrett, senior vice president of Advantage Capital Partners, a venture capital fund in Tampa, welcomed the recommendation. "They've identified a real problem in early-stage funding," he said. "That's a very good idea for the state."

Kelley of Enterprise Florida said several of the plan's recommendations would be helped by Bush's proposed state budget, which includes money for university centers of excellence, the closing fund, rural areas and general economic development.

"Strategic plans have a tendency to go in a bookcase and collect dust," he said. "Our commitment is to make sure this plan becomes a reality."

_ Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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