Tough economic times are helping to cultivate a new approach to economic development.
Last session, the Legislature passed a $10-million pilot program that provides $8.5 million for short-term, low-interest loans and $1.5 million for technical assistance.
The Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce is among several local business groups in Florida that are incorporating economic gardening tactics into their development arsenals. More than a year ago, the Jacksonville group set up a second-stage volunteer advisory board and now hosts quarterly forums for 30 to 35 CEOs of second-stage companies. The forums are led by CEOs who have been through the trials and tribulations of building a sustainable, fast-growing enterprise — and are targeted specifically for second-stage firms.
"A second-stage business does not want to be in a startup class," says Sandy Bartow, vice president for small business at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber.
Separately, 10 Jacksonville CEOs participate in an ongoing peer-to-peer mentoring group called Peerspectives. "Probably the best thing is that everybody in the group kind of acts as my board of directors," says Joe Lemire, co-founder of Elyk Innovation, a Jacksonville internet strategy firm.
The state also has bought into the economic gardening approach in a fashion. Last session, the Legislature passed a $10-million pilot program that provides $8.5 million for short-term, low-interest loans and $1.5 million for technical assistance. The idea was to use the $1.5 million to pay a group of economic gardening experts to vet applications for the loan money and to offer marketing help and other kinds of assistance to fast-growing businesses from around the state that are seeking to expand.
The Black Business Investment Fund of Central Florida is handling the loan part of the program statewide, and the University of Central Florida’s Office of Research was tapped to administer the technical assistance portion. Tom O’Neal, associate vice president for research and commercialization at UCF, says the group will use the $1.5 million to launch the pilot program and to form an economic gardening institute at UCF. It will also acquire sophisticated databases and other tools as well as train and pay the people who will lead "Jumpstart" teams. Among the team leaders is Chris Gibbons, the business and industry affairs director for Littleton who pioneered the original economic gardening program.
The group plans to offer intensive and personalized assistance to about 300 companies statewide and assist about 700 more companies in a more limited way. The Jumpstart program began in October with 10 to 15 CEO participants in each of six regions around the state. Economic developers will meet with each CEO to identify his or her specific needs and then connect them with nationally known professionals in fields such as database management, search engine optimization and global information systems. Part of the program includes a rapid response solution within 24 to 48 hours to a CEO’s immediate problem.
"The Florida model," says Quello, "is very encouraging."