The Florida House wants to eliminate Enterprise Florida, an agency responsible for recruiting businesses to the state. But some worry the House’s crusade against one agency could hamper broader economic efforts.
Jerry Kocan sells trucks. He runs a company called Four Star Freightliner with a handful of locations in Georgia, Alabama and one in Tallahassee, two miles up from Interstate 10.
“Oh my,” Kocan says, “we’ve been in Tallahassee for 14 years, we’ve been in this facility here for 12.”
But he’s ready to expand, and his current location leaves a bit to be desired.
“We’ve kind of grown over this last decade,” he says, “so we need more space, and it’d be a bit more advantageous for us to be near the interstate.”
That’s about where Beth Kirkland comes in—she’s the executive director of the Gadsden County Development Council.”
Kirkland’s office works with two state agencies—the Department of Economic Opportunity and Enterprise Florida—to help companies set up shop in Gadsden County. In Four Star Freightliner’s case that meant tapping into the rural infrastructure fund. It’s a pool of state dollars set aside to help rural counties pave the roads, build the sewers and hang the powerlines companies need to get started.
“It’s been funded at about $1.6 million dollars a year and we have got 32 rural counties,” Kirkland says. “This just particular project was a $400,000 investment—that’s not going to go very far with that many counties.”
And Kirkland’s efforts don’t end with finding a location—the county is also busy establishing a stream of qualified workers.
“The Gadsden Technical Institute will partner with Four Star Freightliner,” she explains. “People will be able to be trained in jobs that are not only in demand today, but for a long time to come.”
But while Kocan, Kirkland and others argue these programs are vital for development, some lawmakers are skeptical.
“We should focus on getting the climate right,” Rep. Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) says, “making sure that we’ve got good public safety, good education, good infrastructure, a low tax rate.”
Renner is leading the charge in the House to eliminate Enterprise Florida. He and House leadership view the incentives the organization doles out as corporate welfare.
“Taxpayers should not be asked to give up their own priorities when their families are struggling to hand money—literally hand money—in the form of a subsidy, to a private company in exchange for going anywhere,” Renner says.
State leaders established Enterprise Florida as a public-private partnership in the mid-nineties. But according to legislative researchers, private investment has never come close to the 50-50 split lawmakers originally envisioned. Now Enterprise Florida has come under intense criticism for lavish spending within its corporate offices and failed deals trading incentive money for jobs. Last month a veto-proof majority in the House passed Renner’s measure to eliminate the organization.
That’s unsettling for Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Cissy Proctor.
“The larger economic development organization is what’s at risk,” she says, “and the message that we’re sending to the rest of the country and the world is what is at risk.”
Proctor sees Enterprise Florida as a key element in growing and diversifying the state. The $1.6 million for rural infrastructure isn’t disappearing, but she worries without Enterprise Florida, businesses won’t know to ask about it. The organization serves as an entry point connecting businesses with resources, not just in her office or Career Source Florida, but with local agencies throughout the state.
“Who are the businesses going to call?” she asks, “Are they going to call all 67 counties?”
“They may not know where they want to locate,” she goes on, “we’re not even going to have an economic development division any more at the agency. And so there really isn’t a door or a person to call to say, who do I go to?”
For his part, Renner doesn’t oppose all economic development and he’s happy to hear Four Star Freightliner is expanding in Gadsden County. His complaint is the emphasis on individual companies rather than the broader economy.
“So it’s about having the right climate—which is building a great farm, but not asking the taxpayers to pick the farmer that can farm the land. That’s the difference,” he says.
But in Midway, Florida at Four Star Freightliner’s future home, that farm is exactly what Kirkland sees.
“We have the remainder—you know the remaining forty acres that we’re preparing for other occupants as well,” she says. “So it’s not just about this one opportunity, it’s about preparing for a number of opportunities.”
The deal preparing that land is already done, and Renner’s measure makes exceptions to wind down Enterprise Florida’s existing contracts. So far there isn’t a similar bill in the state Senate, but Proctor and others worry the fight over corporate incentives could mean there won’t be many more Four Star Freightliners in the future.