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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Oct. 21, 200912:00 PM EST

Heavy hitters discuss factors around future trade, transportation

by: David Chapman

by David Chapman

Staff Writer

Members of the public and private sector received a peek into the present and future of trade and transportation Tuesday from officials with wide-ranging roles and backgrounds during the fourth annual “Global Trade and Transportation Symposium.”

The near all-day event featured numerous topics and updates during several breakout sessions, with one panel discussion focused on transportation plans from several area executive officials. They included: Steve Grossman, Jacksonville Aviation Authority executive director; Rick Ferrin, Jacksonville Port Authority CEO; and Michael Blaylock, Jacksonville Transportation authority executive director. Dan McCarthy, former City Military Affairs director, and Mike O’Malley, CSX Transportation vice president of government and community affairs, joined the three to answer questions regarding the Navy’s impact on the area and transportation and railroad issues, respectively. Former City Council President Lad Daniels moderated the discussion, which one panelist said was another opportunity to inform a group of business leaders.

“I think everyone in Northeast Florida knows how important transportation is as part of the economic engine,” said Blaylock. “You have a lot of interest in this room ... I’d love to see more discussions like it.”

In one of the only sweeping questions, Daniels asked each member to, in effect, describe a task they’d accomplish if they were immediately able. Grossman talked about the JAA’s goal to further the area economic engine and have an overall positive impact with job-producing projects like Cecil Commerce Center. Blaylock said he’d have both sustainable funding for his authority and the joint effort of Northeast Florida counties for a regional transportation hub. McCarthy wanted to see a nuclear carrier at Mayport Naval Station, while O’Malley said CSX Transportation would continue to accomplish goals to continue and diversify the economy.

Ferrin’s answer slightly mirrored Grossman’s, as he wanted to continue to make the Port an economic driver, but had one key goal that would help its progress.

“The best thing we can do is job creation and help lead us out of this recession,” he began. “To fulfill that vision is dredging (from 41 feet to 48 feet that would allow for post-Panamax ships) and we have to make sure we can get that.”

While the Port was one of the focal points of export growth, Daniels also asked Grossman and Blaylock questions regarding their respective authority’s roles. Grossman responded that air cargo has been consolidated to “the FedEx and UPS’s of the world,” and instead would focus on passengers, while Blaylock espoused how transit-oriented developments create infrastructure that benefits both businesses and the community as a whole.

“We all need infrastructure,” said Blaylock. “We have to have a way to move those goods.”

The panelists weren’t the only collective group providing information, as attendees also received a national and state legislative update from a few heavy hitters in the transportation realm. Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and ULI senior fellow and former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy provided insight on transportation in the state, budget issues and other factors involved with making future decisions.

Kopelousos advised attendees to carefully review U.S. Rep. James Oberstar’s transportation bill while also defending the state’s stimulus funds progress. The idea of safety, preservation and maintenance came first, she said, and would benefit the state more than using the dollars to replace funds already allotted for simple projects.

“I believe we’ve done it the right way,” she said.

Kopelousos also explained an example of how the funds are working, relating a story of one Jacksonville contractor she contacted who told her the funds prevented close to 40-50 layoffs.

“That’s making a difference,” she said.

On the budget, Kottkamp said that while the state continues to be business-friendly, the biggest facet to attract needed high-tech, high-wage jobs would be strides in early education to compete with a growing global workforce.

“The key for us is to go forward and be aggressive in an innovative economy,” he said. “Education is the biggest bang for the buck.”

In addition to the two discussions, the morning part of the session featured two economic reports from both the international and local perspective.

BBVA Compass Chief Economist Nathaniel Karp provided details and analysis of the recession on the international and national stage, telling the audience that the stimulus efforts have provided a boost to the economy but further growth would be determined by the actions of the Federal Reserve. The probability “double-dip recession” is low, he added, and while financial growth is encouraging, it’s also slower than needed and would take years to recoup to normal levels.

University of North Florida professor and economist Paul Mason provided the economic outlook on the local front, saying the key to growth would come with oil prices lowering, a boost in consumer confidence and a recovering credit market.

Those needs, along with factors like current high unemployment rates throughout the Southeast and a potential relapse in the home-buying market, aren’t conducive to an overly optimistic or speedy turnaround.

“Don’t expect a miracle anytime soon,” he said.

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