FLORIDA Perception vs. Reality
The future of Florida: Charting a new course
Old stereotypes about Florida's image and growth model are slowly giving way to new economic realities.
The story cataloged a host of challenges to Florida's traditional model of growth that depended on cheap homes, retirees and tourists. Dougherty described a new Florida of expensive houses, costly insurance and congested roads — one growing less attractive to retirees, whom other neighboring states were eagerly courting. Time magazine chimed in with a piece musing on whether Florida had become the "Sunset State."
The stories created an instant public relations migraine for many economic development professionals in the state who worried how the portrayal of Florida would affect recruitment efforts and growth. "We had quite a number of Wall Street Journal articles that really painted storm clouds over Florida," says Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "And if you're a site selection company who's looking at relocating to Florida, you're reading all the same articles we are."
But the articles — and a decade's worth of other economic change they largely ignored — helped crystallize feelings that Florida's old sunshine-and-tourism marketing ploy no longer reflected the way the state was evolving.
Wilson and others in the business community embraced the idea that the state needed to retool the way it presented itself. There is "nothing wrong with Florida's brand," he says — the state is simply encountering the challenges that come as it matures economically. "Our opportunity is to have more and more people talk about what is the brand of Florida, what should it be and what can we do to make sure what we want it to be is in sync with what it is."
To highlight more than the state's weather and theme parks, the Florida Chamber of Commerce in 2009 started its Florida Scorecard program, directing attention to how the state ranks on everything from educational achievement to venture capital investment and heart disease. Gov. Rick Scott made economic development a centerpiece of his platform, personally cold-calling CEOs in other states to tout Florida.
Economists pointed out that despite the state's troubles during the recession, it hadn't lost all its allure. "I wouldn't agree that Florida is over in any sense of population growth," says University of Florida economics professor Stan Smith. "It's still growing, just not as rapidly."
Challenges remain: Florida didn't crack the top 10 in Site Selection magazine's rankings of the most popular states in 2011 for companies expanding and relocating. Ohio won the top spot, followed by Texas. Site selectors and economic developers in other states give Florida a mixed report card. The state is criticized for relying on its old image for too long as other states pursued more aggressive strategies but gets credit for business initiatives like the effort that has given Florida an international profile as a biotech hub that it lacked 10 years ago.
The perception of Florida may still be playing catch-up with economic realities, but it is evolving, say economic development professionals like Manny Mencia, senior vice president and COO of Enterprise Florida's international trade and business development unit. Mencia says that when he represented Florida at economic development conferences 30 years ago, people would say, "Oh, ‘the state of the newlywed and the nearly dead' — you know, the Florida stereotype of tourism and retirement." Now, he says, Florida is "suddenly perceived as a much more vibrant, much more diversified state than ever before."