1. Opinion

Column: Save the Florida Enterprise Fund and keep our economic momentum strong

Published Mar. 1, 2016

Tampa Bay is on the rise. We're one of Florida's top markets for job creation, unemployment is near a 10-year low, significant investment is taking place throughout the region, and aggressive efforts by local economic development organizations are attracting national attention for major business recruitment and expansion deals.

Our future is bright, but if the Legislature moves forward with plans to eliminate the Florida Enterprise Fund, commonly known as a "closing fund," it could deliver an unintended and untimely end to the momentum we've worked so hard to create.

Last Friday, House and Senate leadership failed to fund the program, which would provide critical resources to communities competing for high-impact, transformative economic development projects. Originally proposed as a $250 million, three-year trust to incentivize the most competitive business deals, lawmakers kicked off budget negotiations by knocking the amount down to zero. Through legislative negotiations Monday night, the number had not budged.

Critics have denounced these performance-based incentives as "corporate welfare," and while we commend the principled beliefs behind these concerns, the reality is that communities in Tampa Bay are competing daily with other cities and states that use incentives just like this to assist with corporate relocation and transition costs and provide training for new employees. Without incentives on the table, most high-impact projects won't take a second look at all that Florida has to offer.

Reaction to the surprising move by the Legislature has been swift and passionate, and the Tampa Bay Partnership has led a regional effort to rally business and community leaders to express their support for the program. On Monday, the partnership and eight economic development organizations in Tampa Bay sent a letter to legislative leaders that expressed a deep and collective concern over the impact this legislative action could have on the future of Tampa Bay.

Since its inception, the current closing fund program has been used to attract more than 22,000 jobs to Florida, with nearly a third of those new positions coming to the eight counties of Tampa Bay.

Our economic development agencies have worked with state, county and municipal partners to responsibly and strategically leverage these funds — which are matched with local dollars — to encourage the expansion of existing companies and assist in the recruitment of new businesses to Florida.

The closing fund has helped to win 21 high-impact projects for the Tampa Bay region, representing more than 7,000 jobs and $718 million in capital investment from prominent companies including: Air Products Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb, FELD Entertainment, iQor Holdings, Johnson & Johnson, the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. and the United Services Automobile Association.

If we intend to build upon our recent success, we can't afford to eliminate the very tools that allow our communities to compete for, and win, the transformative projects that have already led to new, high-wage jobs and capital investment.

By failing to fund the Florida Enterprise Fund, we not only jeopardize all of the projects in our pipeline today, we send a message that we're not prepared to compete for the highly coveted jobs of tomorrow. Companies look for consistency and dependability. A decision to eliminate one of the state's cornerstone incentive programs delivers the opposite message.

The Tampa Bay region is likely to experience a disproportionate share of missed opportunities should our lawmakers decline to support the Florida Enterprise Fund, but we could also prevent this worst-case scenario from playing out at all.

The members of the bay area legislative delegation, including House Appropriations chair Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Senate Appropriations chair Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, have the power to take action and reinstate funding for this critical program. On behalf of the Tampa Bay region, we urge them to do just that.

We know that our lawmakers have been asked to make tough decisions about the future of Florida; they must prioritize our spending and invest in programs with the greatest return for the state and our communities.

We believe the Florida Enterprise Fund gives us an opportunity to create a sustainable economic foundation that will resonate for years to come, and by funding this program, we can ensure our region's economic competitiveness and prosperity, now and in the future.

Rick Homans is the president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.