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Will economic road map lead to malfunction junction?

What does the Tampa Bay area's outdated highway system have in common with Florida's new strategic economic plan?

When you don't know where you're going, any crowded road will do.

The similarity came to mind last week after listening to Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development organization, present its long awaited strategic plan for 2004-09 to Gov. Jeb Bush for consideration. The content of this document may well drive much of the state's economic funding machinery in the next five-year effort to make Florida more competitive than it is now.

The strategic plan is dubbed Roadmap to Florida's Future.

With some strong leadership and execution by business and political leaders, Roadmap might help navigate the Sunshine State away from its overdependence on low-wage retirement and tourism industries and toward more diversified and higher-wage businesses such as biotechnology, information technology and global trade.

Without leadership and distorted by politics, the Roadmap may instead direct us to the strategic equivalent of where I-4 meets I-275: Malfunction Junction.

The historic and high-price transaction in late 2003 to recruit Scripps Research Institute to Florida may become a long-term economic home run for a state never associated with biotech clout. But was that deal a one-trick pony? What do we do for a worthy encore?

For all the promising ideas in Florida's 2004-09 economic plan, I fear for the state's longer-term competitive standing for three reasons:

_ Enterprise Florida introduced its strategic plan in Tallahassee with a self-congratulatory tone that made me wonder if the speaker was Alfred E. "What, Me Worry?" Newman of Mad magazine.

Government-speak can compel people to speak with brimming optimism and royal deference. But the strategic plan would seem more credible if Florida's serious economic challenges were addressed with the same fervor as the many references to the state's high business rankings on selected lists of trade publications.

_ One problem above all confronts Florida. And it is a triple whammy. First, while the state continues to create more jobs, they tend to be low-wage work paying on average less than $30,000 a year. Second, Florida may be creating these mostly lower-wage jobs faster (2.9 percent) than other states, but the Sunshine State's working-age population has been growing even faster (3.7 percent) in the past two years. Yes, Roadmap urges more attention to creating better-paying jobs, but gives short shrift to this demographic predicament.

And third, cost-obsessed companies are relocating more and more better-paying jobs overseas _ it's called offshoring _ at an alarming pace. Roadmap acknowledges the job drain, but offers no concrete methods to counter this trend.

_ While Florida unveils its economic road map, many other states also are endorsing new strategic plans for the future that _ guess what? _ endorse many of the same goals. Talk about biotech cloning: 41 states have raised $18-billion to attract and develop biotechnology, according to the Brookings Institution. (No wonder Scripps got $510-million in Florida funds, risk-free, to come here.) And almost every state also wants to become the next Silicon Valley of tech and the next hot spot of global trading.

Is this a positive thing because the rising tide of economic expectations will lift all boats? Or will so many states in economic lockstep mean we will face an era of nasty competitive wars with other states _ and lower-cost countries _ scrapping for too few 21st century businesses?

(You can look at Florida's Roadmap yourself by going online to www.eflorida.com. Click on the "Enter" button, then click on the green box at the right of the screen.)

Finally, keep in mind that Florida's strategic economic plan covers the next five years. Gov. Bush will end his second term as governor at the start of 2007, only halfway through the Roadmap's time frame.

So where exactly does Florida's Roadmap point? Here are the key recommendations.

Florida must compete for and win the headquarters in Miami for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The state should encourage more entrepreneurship by funding state-backed "centers of excellence" and directing $60-million to boost Florida's thin veneer of venture capital. Gov. Bush also plans to seek $20-million in his 2004 budget to establish two more tech and science "centers of excellence" to complement the three just approved at the University of Florida, University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University.

Roadmap calls for improving education (in a state where fewer than seven out of 10 high school students graduate), and better linking training to work force needs in the state. It also seeks to protect the state's defense and manufacturing industries, add economic funds to rural areas, overhaul the state's dated growth management system and create incentive funds to help attract relocating businesses.

And the plan seeks to "regain" the wages Florida's workers have lost over the past 10 years. The modest goal: to raise Florida's average pay, now at 88 percent of the national average, to 92 percent by 2009.

All in all a tall order. But can the state bureaucracy and Enterprise Florida deliver? Finding ways to slow the offshoring frenzy or raising the bar of a long-neglected state education system are tough, tough challenges.

Other states are pursuing similar economic strategies with Scripps-size government subsidies.

Michigan's governor last week vowed to streamline business regulation, set up three new venture capital funds to pump $500-million into businesses, refocus work force training and offer zero-interest college loans to engineering and technology students who stay in the state. Iowa committed $503-million and Arizona invested $140-million, both in pursuit of biotechnology.

Kudos to any state trying to jumpstart its economy into the 21st century. But there sure is a lot of economic duplication under way.

Gov. Bush last week reminded his strategic planners that looking ahead to 2009 is great, but keeping today's economic engine humming is important, too. Like Florida's tourism business.

"When you see someone visiting Florida," the governor said, "kiss them on the cheek and say, "Thanks for being here.' "

And if they happen to be lost on Florida's highways, be sure to give them a road map.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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