The Tallahassee Democrat
March 17, 2016
Florida State University President John Thrasher jokes that whenever he encounters Gov.
Rick Scott, the “Let’s Get to Work” chief executive always asks the same question: “When am I going to have my first job announcement in Leon County?”
Thrasher was making light of an increasingly fractious issue faced by local policymakers and business executives: How can we diversify Tallahassee’s economy to make it less of a government town?
The recent dissolution of the Economic Development Council has forced the Tallahassee City Commission and Leon County Commission to find a way forward. The newly created Office of Economic Vitality is open for business retention and recruitment.
As part of the new framework, city and county officials have sought to include representatives from various sectors within the community. All the usual suspects have a seat at the table. The Leon County Research & Development Authority, owner of Innovation Park, is mentioned as a key player going forward.
It’s unclear what role the LCRDA and the 208-acre Innovation Park will play in the new setup, but we believe the timing is right to leverage this valuable community asset to attract the kinds of companies that play to this region’s strength: high tech research that equals high-paying jobs.
We’d like to see a removal of the silos that have typified our economic development approach and focus on this community’s inherent strengths and resources — the research potential of Florida State University, Florida A&M University and TallahasseeCommunity College.
“It’s our biggest untapped resource to diversify our economy. It’s the most stable resource we have. It’s homegrown,” says Leon County Commissioner Kristin Dozier, a member of the LCRDA board. “Drawing on research when we recruit, it’s more stable than getting a company that can locate anywhere and we are competing with everyone else. We have research happening here that doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
Timing is everything. LCRDA board members say Innovation Park is at the end of a five-year turnaround. They’re bullish about the park’s prospects. That’s heartening given where they’ve come from since the dark days of 2010 when the former Innovation Park office manager was indicted for embezzling $647,000 over four years. What followed was the painful but necessary and long overdue reorganization and restructuring of the LCRDA.
In 2014, the authority was restructured. It wanted to be more a driverof economic development and less of a property manager, which it had become. FSU and FAMU each received about 17 acres of developable land in Innovation Park. FSU assumed ownership of land on which it has already developed buildings it owns. It also received the Sliger and Shaw buildings.
At the time, FAMU received the Centennial Building. The LCRDA retained five buildings, along with several properties leased to private companies, and about 19 acres of land in and adjacent to the park. Property management is still a lifeline — all of its revenues come from rents. It gets no tax revenues from the city or county. The good news? The LCRDA is sitting on $3.7 million in reserves — all rent revenue.
As part of the restructuring, the county commission expanded the LCRDA board from nine to 11 members, including an unprecedented six representatives from the private sector, and one each from TCC, FSU, FAMU, the city and the county. A private sector representative, Anne Longman of Lewis Longman & Walker P.A., now chairs the LCRDA board.
That’s a move in the right direction.
Board members are looking for ways to give Innovation Park a more campus-like feel. Ideas include an extended stay hotel for all the smartpeople who visit the research facilities, a coffee shop, trails and even an apartment complex.
Those ideas are laudable. But the real key is building on what Innovation Park was built for in the first place — maximizing the research capabilities of area universities and colleges. The $14 million expansion at Danfoss Turbocor Compressors Inc.
is but a small sample of the kind of potential that exists.
To be sure, Innovation Park isn’t a location for all types of manufacturing. It doesn’t have that kind of space. What it does have is room for early stage companies and satellite offices of major companies. LCRDA board members aren’t talking about attracting GE or Boeing headquarters, but divisions within divisions of those major companies that can benefit from proximity to the FSU wind tunnel and Mag Lab and other research facilities. They also talk about finding a kind of LeBron James of recruiting who knows what those companies need and how Innovation Park can best serve those needs.
In other words, the approach needs to be strategic and focused on this region’s strengths. If that works for Innovation Park, it might just work for the new Office of Economic Vitality.
Anne Longman, new chair of the LCRDA board, speaks during an editorial board meeting at the Tallahassee Democrat.