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Swoope to sell a diminished Florida

As the president-designate of Enterprise Florida, Gray Swoope is venturing into a two-decade-old experiment that is facing its biggest challenge yet in surviving as a public-private endeavor.

A new governor wants to resurrect the agency Enterprise Florida replaced — the Department of Commerce, though Swoope is designated to run that, as well. The department, of course, would answer to Gov. Rick Scott, giving the former hospital chain CEO leverage needed to increase governmental control of Enterprise Florida at the expense of the private sector.

And Scott’s marching orders to the former head of the Mississippi Development Authority are clear: Create tens of thousands of jobs despite massive cuts in education spending, the death of a $2.4-billion federal investment in a bullet-train project and a highly congested state ready to turn back the clock on further transportation and growth management planning.

Swoope will walk onto a landscape that looks far different from what he would have encountered at the quasi-public economic development agency even as recently as five years ago.

The brainchild of the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in the early 1990s, Enterprise Florida replaced the Department of Commerce as the state’s economic development arm. The idea was to bring more private sector thinking into policy making and strategizing. Businesses join, pay dues and get a say. Enterprise Florida’s creators saw it as a bipartisan economic development organization that could create sustainable economic growth that survives the changes in governors, legislative leaders and Cabinet officials.

Gov. Scott showed his cards soon after taking office. He presided over the first board meeting of the year of Enterprise Florida. Moments after it ended, he fired CEO John Adams, an appointee of Gov. Jeb Bush who went on to serve through the administration of Gov. Charlie Crist.

Adams joined Enterprise Florida back when ideology didn’t set the tone for nearly every move and policy made by state leaders. Economic development was seen as a non-partisan pursuit and what made for business-friendly policy was easier to explain.

Ideology is front and center with the new administration. Nowhere is that more evident than in Florida’s education policy, or at least in the crippling blow Gov. Scott intends to administer to the state’s public education system.

Detailing his new budget back in January at a Baptist church audience of Tea Party supporters, Scott said he plans to beef up economic development by $200 million. He’ll pay for some of that, he told the crowd, by cutting $3.3 billion from the state’s public education budget.

Any economic development professional will tell you that an educated, literate workforce is the key to attracting new business to your state and getting ones already in the state to stay or expand. But when your state has an 11.9 percent unemployment rate, you need a scapegoat — and Scott has found his in Florida’s K-12 system.

What he’s doing to education and the state’s economic development prospects is “shortsighted” and “unbelievable,” says former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, but, in the spirit of partisanship, Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature is ignoring the alarms Graham is sounding.

Swoope’s mission, then, is to go forth and tout a  workforce produced by a public education system that plans to spend $703 less per student in 2012 than it does today.

By 2018, seven years into his term, the new Enterprise Florida boss will need to have contributed significantly to cutting Florida’s unemployment to 6 percent, roughly half today’s rate. Otherwise, he’ll have failed to meet the state’s official forecast.

Here is what Gray Swoope faces: Add 162,700 jobs a year — or 13,600 jobs every month.

Here is the clip on which he must improve: 8,400 jobs created from Jan. 2010 to Jan. 2011, or 700 new jobs a month.

The reckless disregard Florida and some other states have begun exhibiting toward public education has not reached Mississippi. If it had, Swoope would not have achieved his coups such as Toyota.

But as he settles into new life in Florida, Swoope at least can look back fondly on his Mississippi successes.


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