Can We Diversify?

By Hannah Wallace February 29, 2008

Talk about a wake-up call. I got one recently when a Connecticut businessman called me to say he’d been researching the region to determine if it would be a good location for his new company, and he’d been reading Biz941 to get a feel for the business climate here. He was vague about exactly what type of business it was, only describing it as a “knowledge-based, global reach company,” but he did say he needed smart, ambitious go-getters, the kind you might find in the Research Triangle around Raleigh-Durham, to fuel its success. To start, he was looking to hire 75 employees, and eventually he could see the company growing to more than 1,000 workers. Did I think we possessed the talent pool? It didn’t even have to be all local talent, he added; the University of Florida and other state universities were potential recruiting markets.

I told him a little about our labor force then asked why he was looking at our region. He said what many CEOs say: lifestyle. He has adult daughters in Tampa and his wife wanted to be near them, but he wouldn’t even consider living in a city without much culture.

He called me several times over the next few days, and I pointed him in the direction of our economic development councils in both counties as well as to companies that have relocated here.

The last time he called me, late in the day, was to say he’d made his decision to keep his company in New York. In the end, it wasn’t so much our labor pool, although that remained a huge concern. It was taxes and insurance. His longtime insurance carrier said it wouldn’t cover him in Florida, and he said our property tax structure, which burdens businesses more than homesteaded residents, was the deciding factor. “You are not going to be able to get companies into Florida unless you reform,” he warned.

We’ve all been talking about the need to diversify our economy beyond tourism and real estate to include more manufacturing and high-tech, but that call brought the message home to me with force. You’ll be reading and hearing more about the challenges of diversifying our economy in future issues of this magazine, and in our upcoming forums on growth at USF’s Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, sponsored by the Coalition of Business Associations (COBA). Stay tuned for dates and times.

Despite that businessman’s decision, we continue to attract entrepreneurs who want to leave corporate culture for a stab at running their own small shops. Read “You Be the Boss,” page 44, for expert insight into the do’s and don’ts of buying and running your own business. And you’ll see why small can be beautiful in “Clear Focus,” page 50, which explains why iconic photographer Clyde Butcher’s decision to keep his business small has reaped big rewards in dollars and passion.

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