Leaders hone strategies to lure companies

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 12, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - John Adams, the plain-talking head of Enterprise Florida, is the chief state official charged with recruiting new business to Florida.

But even Adams noted a scenario to test the limits of his ability: A high-tech company hot for Florida needs 600 workers, and those employees will need housing in three months.

Faced with such a request, Adams described his likely reaction: "Uh oh."

"Work force is a wild card," Adams told about 100 businesses and government leaders Tuesday at a session in St. Petersburg to update the state's strategic economic development plan.

Workers. Housing. Transportation. All were cited as deficiencies hindering the Tampa Bay area's ascension to the upper ranks of corporate destinations.

One of the region's chief appeals relative to the rest of the country, low-cost housing, has vanished with median prices well above $200,000. Combined with comparatively low wages of the Tampa Bay areas - median income is 17 percent below Atlanta's - housing can be a deal breaker.

"I'm seeing job seekers moving out of the area because of costs," said panelist Pam Kauten, owner of job board Florida CareerLINK.

Joe Smith of the construction firm Walbridge Aldinger hammered the region's lack of mass transit to ease growing gridlock on the highways.

Smith proposes creating an eight-county regional transportation authority, a body that could reap hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money toward building commuter rail and other alternatives.

"Transportation is at the core of solutions to everything that ails," he said.

Proponents of work force training criticized an educational system geared more to helping kids find themselves in college than to producing competent workers during high school.

Gary Norris, superintendent of Sarasota County schools, proposed narrowing the curriculum but teaching the remaining courses in greater depth.

"You want a million courses. The research shows it's not helping our kids," Norris said.

The we've-got-to-do-better tone of the four-hour session stuck in the craw of Larry Richey, an executive with the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm.

He must have been living in a different place the past five years, Richey said, because he views the area as a booming success.

"The Tampa Bay region has been pretty much the envy of the country," Richey said. "I don't want people to walk out of here thinking we're in trouble."

But Bob Abberger, an executive with the Trammell Crow construction company in Tampa, equated Tuesday's session to raising kids: If you give a child nothing but praise, he'll never improve.

"We need to act like a disadvantaged community," said Abberger, who also chairs the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's development group, the Committee of 100. "We need to be hungry."

Enterprise Florida, led by Adams, is about midway through a state tour to gather comments to update a five-year plan dubbed the "Roadmap to Florida's Future."

The plan's goals include expanding foreign trade and investment, attracting high-paying corporate jobs and making the state of center of innovation and entrepreneurship.

James Thorner can be reached at 813 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 01:11:39]

original URL: http://www.sptimes.com/2006/07/12/Business/Leaders_hone_strategi.shtml
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