Enterprise Florida Criticism Draws Defenders

Feb 8, 2013

Enterprise Florida President/CEO Gray Swoope
Credit Enterprise Florida

All of us have bad days from time to time.  Occasionally, we may even have a few bad days in a row.  Tom Flanigan reports that, for Florida’s private-public organization that does economic development, this was definitely a bad week….

Actually, Enterprise Florida’s bad week began back on the first of February.  That’s when it unveiled its new marketing campaign based on the tag line, “Florida – the perfect climate for business”.  That campaign immediately drew fire.  For one thing, the “I” in the word Florida was a stylized man’s tie, leading some to call the campaign sexist.  Then there was the fact the campaign was conceived by a company based, not in Florida, but Tennessee.  No sooner was all that in the news than the government watchdog group Integrity Florida and free-market advocate Americans for Prosperity held a joint Capitol news conference.  Integrity Florida Chief Dan Krassner presenting a highly critical report entitled: “Enterprise Florida: Economic Development or Corporate Welfare?”

“Since Enterprise Florida was created in 1992, there have just been 103,544 jobs that they’re claiming credit for.  In 1992 the Florida Legislature set a goal for Enterprise Florida of creating 200,000 high-paying jobs by the year 2005.”

And that, Krassner said, was after Enterprise Florida negotiated more than sixteen-hundred transactions and spent some one-point-seven billion dollars over a twenty-year period.  Americans for Prosperity Florida head Slade O’Brian said what galled him was the distortion Enterprise Florida imposed on the free market.

“Too often we create winners and losers in the marketplace or we take a company or an industry and provide them with special favors and make them different from everybody else in the marketplace.”

Another criticism in the Integrity Florida/Americans for Prosperity report:  Enterprise Florida had not done enough to spur financial support from the dozens of private firms that make up the bulk of its board of directors.  Enterprise Florida President and CEO Gray Swoope admitted there had been some laxness in the past on that score, but things were changing for the better since he took the helm.

“But last year for the first time in the history of Enterprise Florida we had ten new investment members coming on board to help support economic development.  You know when the governor makes his seven missions to go overseas, that’s paid for with private funds.”

Swoope wasn’t the only one rushing to Enterprise Florida’s defense.  Governor Rick Scott sent out a statement in which he expressed his full confidence in the organization to fulfill its mission.  Another supporter is Tony Villamil.  Today he’s the dean of the School of Business at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens and principal advisor to the Washington Economics Group.  He was one of former Governor Jeb Bush’s top economic advisors and headed the Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development  during Enterprise Florida’s early days.   And while critics were charging the organization had a “pay to play” relationship with its private sector board members, Villamil says the whole idea of the organization was to enlist their help in the state’s quest for new business and jobs while also giving them opportunities to benefit.

“They’re stakeholders in the economic development process and by creating the energy and the payment in kind in many ways of the brains of the private sector and the drive of the private sector you have a better entity than having a centralized public office in Tallahassee.”

In other words, Villamil thinks Enterprise Florida, despite whatever deficiencies it has, is essentially being slammed for operating the way it was set up to.  And he sees it surviving its present troubles to become even more vital to the state.

“The future is even more important because as we become more globalized and more technology and knowledge incented we need a very agile economic development organization that brings in the best of the private sector with the public sector together.”

A model Villamil says that, while getting its start in Florida, has now spread successfully to several other states.