Regional economic developers on a panel Tuesday genially discussed a moderator’s questions about the status, strengths and challenges of the area.
She started off with what she called a softball question.
At the end came a fastball from Daily Record Publisher Matt Walsh.
“I was wondering if any of you would be willing to comment on what House Speaker Richard Corcoran is doing with incentives?” he asked.
Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, calls taxpayer incentives “corporate welfare” and wants to block Gov. Rick Scott’s budget for the Enterprise Florida public-private economic-development agency and the Visit Florida tourism organization.
Three of the seven panelists took a swing at the question as time was running out at the CREW Jacksonville regional economic development update at The River Club.
“A curse for us,” said Laura DiBella, executive director of the Nassau County Economic Development Board. “It is sending the worst marketing message possible for anyone wanting to do business in the region.”
Bill Garrison, president of the Clay County Economic Development Corp., called the effort “wrongheaded.”
“That puts Florida at a huge disadvantage,” said Crawford Powell, a consultant for Baker County economic development. Rural counties like Baker are the most affected, he said.
Moderator Cathy Chambers, senior vice president of strategy and development at JAXUSA Partnership, along with several of the panelists plan to attend a 1 p.m. meeting today of the House Subcommittee on Careers & Competition to oppose the bill to eliminate the agencies.
Chambers also chairs the Florida Economic Development Council, which puts her in the role as an ex officio member of the Enterprise Florida board.
Chambers said there is a call for all economic-development organizations around the state, as well as any companies that want to take part, to make known their support for the agencies facing the cut.
Corcoran filed a bill last week to eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, among other elements.
He said there would be no economic incentives in the House’s proposed 2017-18 state budget.
Scott has said he believes the Legislature will fully fund Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
The News Service of Florida reported Scott’s budget proposes $85 million for business-recruitment incentives and $76 million for tourism marketing.
The proposed $83.5 billion state budget also includes $23.5 million to run Enterprise Florida.
Scott continues to speak out in support of the agencies and incentives, saying they are critical to entice companies to create jobs in the state.
Garrison in Clay County said it was easy to oversimplify and use the term “corporate welfare,” but he said incentives in Florida are post-performance.
That means the incentives are not paid until a project is completed and operating.
To eliminate Enterprise Florida and its attempts to recruit jobs “seems so silly to me,” he said.
“We have state level counterparts who are out here day in and day out trying to promote and you are going to get rid of that?” Garrison asked.
He said he appreciated Corcoran’s intent for more transparency and accountability “but it seems to me they could do a little more education and achieve their goal.”
Powell at Baker County said geography is a factor in economic development, as are state incentives.
“If the speaker wants to push that position, my theology is if you are metropolitan or you are relatively along the coast, you are doing OK,” he said.
But inland communities, he said, “are struggling and it is not going to get any better without a substantial level of investment from the state.”
Powell said the market drives a deal and if taxpayer incentives make a difference in costs, then the business decision-maker takes that into account.
“That’s what your corporate responsibility is,” he said.
A lack of state incentives, he said, “puts Florida and especially the rural communities at a huge disadvantage.”
DiBella in Nassau County said Florida can’t hide from the headlines “and corporations all over the world are looking at what is going on in Florida right now.”
She said an international group continues to ask daily about the situation.
“We just seem like a political nightmare to a lot of people right now,” she said.
CREW was established as a networking organization to support women in commercial real estate.
The panel Tuesday comprised representatives from the seven counties that are part of JAXUSA, the regional economic development division of JAX Chamber.
In addition to Baker, Clay and Nassau, representatives from Duval, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns took part.