The I-95 Corridor plan could raise South Florida's high-tech profile -- if it can get funding.
by David Villano
California has its Silicon Valley, North Carolina its Research Triangle. Will south Florida soon be home to e-Beach? That's the hope of officials promoting the so-called I-95 Corridor, a regional partnership of academia, local government and high-tech industry.
"Why not place ourselves on the nation's high-tech map?" asks Mike Langley, chairman of the Broward Alliance, the county's economic development agency. "E-Beach, e-coast, silicon coast -- it doesn't matter what we call it."
Despite its reputation as a high-tech backwater, south Florida is home to some of the nation's fastest-growing tech companies. In October, Bloomberg Personal Finance magazine ranked FirstCom, a Coral Gables-based telecommunications firm, No. 1 in the nation in 1998 sales growth.
Computer services company AnswerThink Consulting, also in Coral Gables, ranked fifth. Other south Florida firms in the top 100: Fort Lauderdale's SportsLine USA, Able Telcom Holding of West Palm Beach, Weston's Ultimate Software Group and Fort Lauderdale software maker Citrix Systems.
But the region has also been stung by defections. In recent years Sony and IBM have closed operations in Boca Raton. Last summer Pratt & Whitney announced it was transferring the majority of its West Palm Beach County workers out of state. And in 1998 Knight Ridder CEO P. Anthony Ridder rattled the region's civic leaders by likening the region to a kind of Silicon Siberia incapable of attracting top technology talent. Knight-Ridder, one of Miami-Dade's most venerable corporate citizens, now has its headquarters in San Jose, Calif.
The region's blueprint for linking high-tech resources is borrowed from central Florida's highly touted I-4 Corridor initiative. Anchored by the universities of South and Central Florida, the 3-year-old program is credited with attracting such companies as Cirent Semiconductor and Bell Laboratories, and with convincing Lucent Technologies to remain in the area. Inspired by such success, the Florida Legislature last year passed a bill providing economic incentives to companies that utilize the research services of Florida's universities. Since then, State University System Chancellor Adam Herbert has toured Florida promoting such collaboration.
Ray Monteleone, CEO of Hollywood's Loren Industries and chairman of the non-profit Enterprise Development Corp., says the I-95 Corridor plan focuses as much on business retention as it does on recruitment. "To keep companies here we need a recognizable environment -- education, research, business services -- that supports and rewards high-tech companies in the same way that a place like Silicon Valley does," says Monteleone. As with the I-4 Corridor, the south Florida plan highlights the R&D capabilities of the region's research universities -- Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University, Nova Southeastern University and the University of Miami.
But despite broad support for the I-95 Corridor plan, funding has been elusive. Last spring Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed legislation appropriating $500,000 in seed money, citing a lack of local coordination. He also raised concerns over intra-state recruitment battles for corporate relocations. Such fears, Langley admits, were well founded. Now, he says, the plan acknowledges the strengths of high-tech centers in central Florida and in north Florida along the so-called I-10 Corridor. In doing so, it proposes an emphasis in south Florida on two high-tech fields: information technology and biomedicine. A new funding bill will be introduced for the coming session. "We're trying to create something here in south Florida," says Langley, "But we can't ignore what's happening in other parts of the state."
In the News
Boca Raton -- Pace Micro Technology Americas, a British company that provides marketing and support services to the telecommunications industry, consolidated its south Florida operations at a new location on North Military Trail. The company also plans to create 20 new positions with an average salary of $50,000.
Broward County -- Another player is joining a crowded field in south Florida's outdoor mall industry. Tanger Factory Outlet Centers of Greensboro, N.C., announced plans to build a 135,000-sq.-ft. factory outlet mall adjacent to the Bass Pro Outdoor World at the intersection of Interstate 95 and Griffin Road in Dania. The mall -- scheduled for completion in fall 2000 -- will compete for bargain shoppers with the mammoth Sawgrass Mills outlet center in Sunrise and west Miami-Dade's Dolphin Mall, which also opens next year.
Juno Beach -- After a brief, tumultuous venture, FPL Group (NYSE-FPL) pulled the plug on a subsidiary that sells electricity to commercial customers in the Northeastern U.S. An undetermined number of employees will be laid off. While the move means FPL will be an electricity retailer only in Florida, the company will continue to produce and sell power on the wholesale market in 12 other states.
Key West -- Wyndham Hotels acquired two of Key West's best-known resorts -- the Marriott Reach and Marriott Casa Marina -- from Patriot American Hospitality earlier this year and now operates the two properties under one name: Wyndham Casa Marina Resort & Beach Club. The Casa Marina, listed on the National Historic Register, was built in 1921 by Henry Flagler.
Miami -- In a major setback to city of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, city voters approved a charter amendment that will abolish the office of county manager and force another mayoral election in March -- 20 months earlier than Carollo's term was due to expire. Carollo argued that the so-called "strong mayor" amendment will encourage cronyism and public corruption by increasing the powers of the city commission. Voters also approved a measure to limit the mayor and city commissioners to two terms in office.
In a blow to federal prosecutors, a Miami jury convicted former County Commissioner James Burke on just one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, while acquitting him on eight other corruption charges. Two co-defendants, former commission aide Billy Hardemon and California businessman Calvin Grisby, were exonerated for their part in what prosecutors allege was an attempt by Burke to push through a county deal with Grisby's bond firm in exchange for $600,000 in secret payments.
Miami-Dade County -- Cargo carrier Atlas Air of Golden, Colo., received approval from the Miami-Dade County Industrial Development Authority for $100 million in bonds to build a maintenance hangar on 13 acres of land at Miami International Airport. The new facility will allow Atlas to double its current workforce of 250 by the end of next year and add another 250 in five years.
Tourist spending in Miami-Dade County jumped more than 20% last year to nearly $5 billion despite a slight 1.1% dip in the total number of overnight visitors.
Two Miami-Dade companies announced plans to expand operations. Lawson Industries, a maker of windows, doors and hurricane shutters, will build a 280,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility on a 15-acre site in Medley. The company now employs 210 and will add at least 200 workers. Pharmaceutical maker Propharma expects to triple its current workforce of 33 after moving into its new west Miami-Dade headquarters.
Facing a possible 11-year prison term, state Sen. Alberto Gutman pleaded guilty to one count of fraud in exchange for a recommendation from federal prosecutors for two years in a federal prison. Gutman had been charged for his role in an alleged Medicare fraud scheme that bilked taxpayers for more than $2 million over a two-year period.
Citing a decline in attendance, organizers of the Midem Americas international music conference and trade show canceled it for 2000. The 3-year-old event, which pumped an estimated $22 million into Miami-Dade County's economy last year, could be held again as early as June 2001.
The country can look forward to higher vegetable prices this winter, courtesy of Hurricane Irene. The state estimates that Miami-Dade County farmers alone suffered losses of about $230 million to vegetable, tropical fruit and nursery crops. Palm Beach losses total nearly $78 million; Broward, $32 million. State researchers are still surveying agricultural damage in Monroe County. Among the hardest hit: nurseries in west Broward and south Miami-Dade.