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- 2011 - October - 12th -

City leaders visit Houston for trade, education insights

by Joe Wilhelm Jr., Staff Writer

More than 120 members of the Jax Chamber visited Houston during the 31st annual leadership trip Sept. 26-28 to look at what the Texas city is doing to improve its port, education system, downtown development and regional transportation.

The group learned how important the port was to the economies of both Houston and Texas.

A 2007 study revealed shipping channel-related businesses contributed to more than 785,000 jobs throughout Texas while generating nearly $118 billion of statewide economic impact.

That shipping channel is about 50 miles long and also is home to 150 private marine terminals. Jacksonville’s shipping channel is about 14 miles long.

“I was surprised by the amount of private terminals they had,” said George Gabel, an attorney with Holland & Knight and the chair of international business for the Jax Chamber.

“We have a lot in common with them, but I also found out that they aren’t our competition,” he said.

Gabel explained that Houston’s port doesn’t plan to deepen its 45-foot channel, so it won’t be pursuing the federal dollars Jacksonville needs to reach 50 feet.

Gabel also said the Houston Port Authority had a good idea with the makeup of its members.

“Their port authority has members from surrounding counties, which sounded to me like a good idea,” said Gabel.

“We found out in the (North Florida) logistics advisory group that people in Clay County, even as far as Columbia County, say, ‘What you do to that river is just as important to us as it is to you,’” he said.

Houston also is preparing for trade with Cuba, which Gabel said is a future potential trading partner for Northeast Florida.

“They are getting ready for Cuba to be opened. My feeling is that everybody thinks we are going to be having trade with Cuba in the not-too-distant future,” said Gabel.

“I think our trip to Houston tells us they think it’s worth getting ready, and I think we need to make more effort to make sure we are ready when the time comes, so we are not asleep at the switch,” he said.

Duval County Public Schools Board Chairman W.C. Gentry focused on the educational presentations.

During the breakout session on education, he asked if Houston had any ideas about mechanisms to attract and retain teachers.

One of the speakers was Houston Independent School District Superintendent of Schools Terry Grier.

“Although they were not using it, (Grier) said in one of his previous school districts in South Carolina that the community had developed special benefits and incentives for teachers, such as businesses offering discounts, like car dealers giving them employee pricing,” said Gentry.

“It was, obviously, financially beneficial, but it also communicated how much the community appreciated them and what they were doing for their schools,” he said.

“It received a good response from the business members that attended,” said Gentry.

St. Vincent’s HealthCare President and CEO Moody Chisholm also supported the idea of businesses helping education.

“We saw opportunities in many areas, but I was most impressed with the education session. Opportunities were identified to bring in the businesses in the community to help with improving our education system,” said Chisholm.

“Many of us are willing and ready to commit human and financial resources to improving our school systems and improving the performance and achievement of Jacksonville’s children,” he said.

“Houston’s educational leaders had some great ideas, and generated important discussion about how we can help,” he said, mentioning business discounts and incentives for teacher recruitment and an effective dispatch center to help direct volunteers from businesses to the schools and areas most in need.

Hugh Greene, president and CEO of Baptist Health and the chair of the Jax Chamber, described the trip to Houston as a vision of what Jacksonville could be.

“I think we were all struck by a city that has made a major investment in infrastructure, especially downtown. The light rail project has been well received,” said Greene.

“The biggest take-away for me was not a new lesson. It’s the ability to grow your strengths. Houston has been a leader in oil production, but with forward thinking they were able to become a leader in alternative energies and not just reliant on fossil fuels,” he said.

“Whatever your strength is, take that and build on it,” said Greene.

jwilhelm@baileypub.com

356-2466

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