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Trigaux: Setbacks at Enterprise Florida, in downtown Clearwater deliver one-two punch to job recruiting

Florida business recruiting: We have a problem.

Make that two.

First up: Tallahassee, which was shocked Monday when Enterprise Florida — the state's job recruiting agency — lost its latest CEO. Chris Hart resigned after only two months on the job. Hart claimed he could not see eye to eye with Gov. Rick Scott on how best to lead Enterprise Florida. He now leaves behind a headless agency at the critical start of the Florida Legislature. The House Speaker is waging a war to do away with the public-private agency altogether as an impediment to letting a "free market" decide what jobs are created in this state.

A more unusual complication is emerging in Clearwater, where city officials are about to surrender responsibility for economic development and business recruitment in much of the city's downtown. As reported in the Tampa Bay Times, the Church of Scientology has a plan to control a large swath of downtown real estate and create a master retail district that will operate under its management and oversight.

City manager Bill Horne tells the Times he's willing to let Scientology officials take the lead on recruiting businesses in the hope they can find the economic solution that has eluded the city government.

"We have to try something," Horne said. "We haven't been successful on our own."

That much is true, though there are pockets of successful technology businesses in the city's downtown. What's left unsaid, of course, is whether the years of slack response to downtown business recruiting is largely due to the dominating presence of Scientology.

The Tallahassee and Clearwater setbacks this week are a one-two gut punch to the traditional approach of recruiting companies and their jobs to the state and the Tampa Bay metro area.

Hart's sudden and controversial resignation after the briefest stint as Enterprise Florida CEO leaves the economic development agency more vulnerable than ever to zealous legislators. Some powerful lawmakers are eager to do away with the agency or, at the least, squeeze its budget for job incentives and shrink its clout as statewide recruiter.

Enterprise Florida is one of Scott's favorite tools for generating more jobs for the state. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Scott are battling one another over the future of an agency that suddenly finds itself in need of a new chief executive.

While smaller in geographic scale, the decision by Clearwater city officials to hand economic development over to the Church of Scientology is perhaps more stunning.

In the larger world of business recruiting,the Tampa Bay metropolitan area is viewed as one region anchored by three larger if unequal cities: Tampa, the emerging business center; St. Petersburg, the arts and entertainment hub; and downtown Clearwater, an uninspired spot for many heading to vibrant Clearwater Beach. Now one of the three city legs of that economic stool is abdicating control of downtown development to a controversial church.

Scientology may attract businesses. But as the plan stipulates, business will be subject to church oversight. And that will be viewed with suspicion in the larger economy.

Large corporations that analyze the dynamics of metro areas where they may want to expand will look at what's happening in downtown Clearwater and pause. It may make little difference if those companies are looking to grow in Tampa or St. Petersburg, or Hillsborough, Pasco or other parts of Pinellas counties. To companies, Tampa Bay is one metro area with one workforce.

What Clearwater's' government is doing — empowering an already influential church to become an economic decision maker for the city core — may send ripples across Tampa Bay's broader aim to attract new and better jobs to this region.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.