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FIGHT BACK, FLORIDA, BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE

Nixon VP Spiro Agnew was right, posthumously, when he called the press "nattering nabobs of negativism." At least this once.

It may be frowned on for a fellow journalist to disparage the national media, but come on, guys. Quit dumping on Florida with commentary that the sunshine has left Florida, the population is fleeing to other states, the economy is DOA and our politicians are spineless worms.

Well, that last item may deserve some more nattering.

Florida's response thus far feels lukewarm to what is one Big Black Eye of Publicity. It's somewhere between a Bronx cheer and a wimpy "Oh, yeah?"

Florida, you can do a lot better than that. We're down. Our latest 10.7 percent state unemployment rateand 11.3 percent in Tampa Bay are painful.

But we're not out.

This is not just some state pride thing, though more of that would not hurt. It's business. Florida's long relied and will continue to rely on people moving here and tourists visiting and spending money. Florida's in a global war to attract business and - this is critical, too - to tap its fair share of federal largesse in stimulus checks, tax incentives and grants.

And Florida is in a desperate contest to persuade its best and brightest young people - lured by hip places like Austin or Denver or big-wage cities like New York and Washington - to stay, start creative companies and generate new ideas.

So when the national media gangs up and broadcasts "Florida: Game Over!" to an international audience, we need to be dang sure that message does not become reality.

Time magazine, USA Today and the New York Times took the lead in recent stories suggesting Florida's over the hill.

Time ran a piece on Sept. 2. Headline: Behind Florida's Exodus: Rising Taxes, Political Ineptitude. The story focused on South Florida and cited rising property taxes amid plummeting home values, hurricane insurance premiums due to rise 10 percent a year for the next three years (to get ready for the Big One) and electric utility Florida Power & Light lobbying the state for a 30 percent rate hike (vital, FPL says, for infrastructure).

USA Today's story appeared Aug. 31. Headline: For Florida, 'end of an era' of population growth. Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, is quoted saying Florida represents an "entire postwar vision of the good life" - palm trees, low cost and no taxes, just easy living. "They could turn it around," he says, "but in the short haul, it's paradise lost."

The New York Times published a piece on Aug. 28. Headline: After Century of Growth, Tide Turns in Florida. It focused on the state's stunning first loss of population since World War II.

"It's got to be a real psychological blow," Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey says in the story.

"I don't know if you can take a whole state to a psychiatrist, but the whole Florida economy was based on migration flows," he says.

Wow. Two big jabs and an uppercut. Is Florida really down for the count?

Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson responded to the USA Today piece suggesting the state is making strides in encouraging new "clusters" of industry more sophisticated (and better paying) than tourism and other business so dependent on population influx. He specifically pointed to the biotech boomlet that's attracted to Florida such high-end research firms as Scripps and, locally, SRI International, and the rising investments made by Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

What he did not note is how Florida, most notably Gov. Charlie Crist and our Legislature, took its eyes off this fledgling biotech cluster. It's too early to assume it can blossom in what is probably the most competitive industry on the planet.

We're not very good at sticking to one thing and seeing it through. Florida: The Attention Deficit Disorder State.

Another response to the USA Today piece comes from Tony Carvajal, who heads the Florida Chamber Foundation, a Chamber affiliate looking at economic goals for Florida. (The Florida Chamber's even focusing on the state's greatest challenges at a "Future of Florida" forum next month in Orlando.)

"Anyone really believe we're done?" asks Carvajal. Florida's old economic model of "cheap land and labor" no longer works in a state now dealing with a higher cost of living, he says. Instead, Florida must rely on its ability to innovate and compete in new markets and industries.

"Fortunately, we have strong footholds in some of these markets and are making inroads in more each day," Carvajal says. "We're well positioned, both literally and figuratively, to be a world leader."

Now I could punch some very big holes in such sunny suppositions. Though Florida is by no means "done," it is waaaaay behind in the global talent race.

But for now, I'm not going to be another negative, nattering nabob. Today I express sincere confidence in our state. Let's all get to work and make it a better, smarter place to live and work.

And national media: Quit pickin' on Florida.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

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