NAVIGATION

February 25, 2018
An exit interview with Gray Swoope

Photo: Enterprise Florida

Former Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope says site selectors gave him a heads-up when Hertz was looking to relocate.

Tallahassee Trend

An exit interview with Gray Swoope

Gray Swoope reflects on his four-year tenure as the state's main economic recruiter.

Jason Garcia | 3/25/2015

In December 2010, just a few weeks before he formally moved into the governor's mansion, then- Gov.-elect Rick Scott organized a roundtable with site-selection consultants from around the country — the people who serve as consultants for big businesses thinking about moving their headquarters or expanding their operations. How does Florida compete, Scott wanted to know.

"And pretty much collectively around the group, they said, 'We just don't see Florida at the table on competitive projects,' " says Gray Swoope, who was leading economic development in Mississippi until Scott hired him in early 2011 to turn around Florida's own job-creation efforts. One of the consultants at that meeting — Swoope won't identify him — told Scott that Florida was suggested as a possibility by only one out of every 20 clients he represented.

They aren't saying that anymore. In fact, Swoope says that same consultant now says Florida is being mentioned by one in every four clients. And Swoope, who surprised many when he stepped down in February as Florida's secretary of commerce and CEO of Enterprise Florida, calls that the top achievement of his tenure.

Swoope, who is now president and CEO of VisionFirst Advisors, a new Tallahassee-based economic development consultancy founded by law firm Butler Snow, was the highest-profile appointee during Scott's first term. He earns praise across the business community for his work at Enterprise Florida, from streamlining review processes to repairing relationships with local economic development commissions.

Most importantly, he was, apart from Scott himself, Florida's biggest commercial cheerleader, traveling around the country and the globe to tout the benefits of doing business here and to scour for potential deals.

Schmoozing site-selection consultants is especially crucial, Swoope says, because more than half of the competitive projects that Enterprise Florida sees involve third-party intermediaries. Those "competitive projects" involve brand name companies, lots of capital investment and plenty of jobs: Think Verizon's decision to invest $50 million and create up to 750 jobs in Lake Mary or GE Oil & Gas' plan to spend $50 million and create at least 500 jobs in Jacksonville.

"Site-selection consultants make recommendations and help guide that process," Swoope says. "We have worked hard to develop relationships in four years with the site-selection community, getting to know them, getting to know what their needs are."

Swoope says that relationshipbuilding led directly to one of the biggest economic development splashes of Scott's first term: A deal to bring car-rental giant Hertz from New Jersey to Estero, in southwest Florida.

Roughly a year before Hertz's possible move was on anyone's radar screen, Swoope says he got a heads-up about it from Ed McCallum, co-founder of Greenville, S. C.-based McCallum Sweeney, one of the most influential site-selection consulting firms in the business. (McCallum died Sept. 8, 2013, of cancer.)

Swoope credits the head start with helping Florida beat out New Jersey and Oklahoma for the project. Hertz is expected to spend nearly $70 million building a headquarters, creating nearly 700 jobs. Also helping was an incentive package from Florida that could top $80 million, including $7 million from the state's Quick Action Closing Fund and $3.4 million a year for 20 years through the Capital Investment Tax Credit program. It probably didn't hurt that Mark Frissora, Hertz's CEO at the time, already had a $4.7-million condo in southwest Florida.

But Swoope says there are still many site selectors and executives who think of Florida solely as a tourism destination. Florida's biggest competitors — Swoope identifies them as Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Indianapolis, Dallas and Denver — "seem to have more of a business image," he says.

"At the end of the day, we really have to take a bigger step to tell our story," he says. "I think that's one of the things we don't do a very good job of."

That kind of step, however, takes a lot of money — sums that Swoope failed to get from the Florida Legislature despite several years of requests. Unable to win the $3 million it sought from the Legislature last year, Enterprise Florida initially planned to seek $20 million this year, but then reduced that to $5 million after learning that's how much Gov. Rick Scott included in his proposed budget.

The relationship between Enterprise Florida and the Florida Legislature has been a rocky one in recent years for a variety of reasons, including the inherent tension between an agency that needs money to spend on confidential projects and a Legislature that writes the checks and wants to know exactly what it's paying for.

"There were always issues — projects that needed fairly quick funding … and 'we need several million dollars but we can't tell you what it is,' " says former state Rep. Ed Hooper (R-Clearwater), who chaired an economic development spending committee from 2012-14. "That really doesn't go over very well."

Some lawmakers simply view Enterprise Florida as a money pit. To wit: As of February, the agency had more than $86 million in an escrow account — incentive money that has been allocated to economic development projects but which has not yet been spent because the companies haven't created all the promised jobs.

At the same time, some Enterprise Florida board members say some lawmakers don't fully understand the group's role and the dynamics of economic development — particularly the multi-year lag time that may occur between the inception of a project and the payoff. "Term limits have created a scenario where every couple of years there is an 18-wheeler full of institutional knowledge that leaves the process," says Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and an Enterprise Florida board member.

That tension can be magnified when legislators approach the agency with potential projects in their districts. If Enterprise Florida doesn't ultimately recommend incentives for the project, hard feelings can result. "Then everybody sort of stands back and scratches their head and says, 'Well, why can't Enterprise Florida do this?' We're the ones paying their bills," says Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), Senate president from 2012-14.

Some in the Legislature say privately that Swoope also antagonized lawmakers at times. One instance: In September, Swoope suggested at a public Enterprise Florida board meeting that Florida could not have competed for a $1.5-billion Apple factory that was announced in 2013 for Mesa, Ariz. To win that project, Arizona economic development officials were able to approve a $10-million grant for Apple in just 40 days, according to Enterprise Florida. Swoope said Florida would have a hard time moving so swiftly because any Quick Action Closing Fund payment greater than $5 million requires the Legislature to sign off through what's known as the Legislative Budget Commission — which may meet as seldom as twice a year.

(Plans for Apple's factory later fell through when one of Apple's suppliers filed for bankruptcy. Apple recently announced new plans for a data network command center in Mesa that will create 150 jobs — about 550 fewer than the factory would have — though with an investment of $2 billion, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.)

Swoope treads carefully when discussing the Legislature. Asked why Enterprise Florida hasn't gotten any marketing money so far, he says, "There can be reasons that are relevant and some that are irrelevant, and so it doesn't get passed."

A number of Enterprise Florida supporters say privately that one reason Swoope stepped down was his frustration with the slowness of the legislative process. Swoope says he left because of a unique opportunity at VisionFirst, where he is reunited with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. A spokesman for Enterprise Florida says any suggestion that he left because of friction with the Legislature is "categorically untrue."

Still, it's clear that one of the tasks facing Swoope's successor — former PortMiami chief Bill Johnson — will be improving relationships with lawmakers.

It could be a challenging assignment. Rep. Richard Corcoran (R-Land O' Lakes), the chamber's chief budget writer, calls himself in "the skeptical category" when it comes to Enterprise Florida and economic development programs that claim big returns on investment.

"We need to start holding people's feet to the fire, especially when you're dealing with taxpayers' dollars," Corcoran says.

Tags: Politics & Law, Tallahassee Trend

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