Gray Swoope talks “team effort” key to Florida economic development

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Gray Swoope, state Commerce Secretary and CEO of Enterprise Florida, has one key function — attracting business to the Sunshine State. This role makes Swoope the key point person for Gov. Rick Scott, who has made private-sector job creation the highest priority of his administration.

Before Swoope’s February 2011 appointment by Scott, he served as executive director of Mississippi’s Development Authority in the Cabinet of Gov. Haley Barbour. There, he was responsible for overseeing more than $4.5 billion in federal funds for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

Swoope was also instrumental in bringing Toyota’s tenth U.S. manufacturing facility to Mississippi, along with its network of suppliers, as well as GE Aviation and Kenworth/ Peterbilt truck manufacturer PACCAR.

Prior to his tenure in The Magnolia State, Swoope also served as president of private non-profit Area Development Partnership, responsible for economic development in the Hattiesburg region, and division chief of the Little Rock-based Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

In an interview with Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida, Swoope discussed his move to Florida, what he brought to the Sunshine State and the growth of business development since his arrival.

Opportunity is what Swoope first found in Florida, with its vast resources. What the state needed was stronger team for economic expansion.

“It was interesting to find that we didn’t have some of the things like relationships, like I said, on the local level, but outside the state as well,” Swoope told Menzel, “relationships with site-selection consultants, relationships with businesses that have multiple locations around this country.”

Realizing that if they are not working together, then Florida cannot have an effective state policy; Swoope began by bringing the diverse group of entities together.

“With strong processes now with the Department of Economic Opportunity that we know how our projects flow, competitive projects, that Enterprise Florida’s working the project up until the time the incentives are actually put on the table to the time they’re approved,” he said.

“The Department of Economic Opportunity’s with us at the table, so that there’s no question about context of how projects evolved instead of starting all over in the process.”

A successful team comes from a “spirit of cooperation,” Swoope added, “cooperation that transcends from whether you’re in Mississippi or you’re in Florida.”

Florida is just now beginning to hit his stride, according to Swoope, catching up to what other states are doing with projects such as a sites-and-buildings database, where potential investors can get an idea of what are available properties in Florida.

“When you’re out there selling your state,” he said, “whether it’s (an) aerospace aviation project or a life science project, most often, the site-selection consultants have already done their thorough research on your state.”

“And when they’re doing that, they’re going to their website, and they’re looking at ‘What are the available sites? What are the available buildings?’ Well, the state of Florida didn’t have that. Every one of these surrounding states has an available sites-and-buildings database.”

When Menzel probed about the debate on the values of incentives, Swoope clarified that Florida is not paying too much for financial incentives to lure businesses to the Sunshine State. In fact, he said, almost all incentives were performance based, so if a company does not perform at agreed-upon levels, then there are “claw-backs.”

“And so you have to look at what’s right from a fiduciary responsibility, first of all, of what has to be returned to the state,” Swoope said. “And if there’s a return to the state, we hope there’s a return to the business. So I always take the approach that incentives will never make a bad deal good, but they can make a good deal better.”

Swoope cited four reports — from the Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the state’s own evaluation and one by Ernst & Young—with each saying that Florida performance-based incentives are the most successful.

Another issue in economic growth is regulation. Swoope agrees that reducing regulations is the key to getting the attention of business considering a move to Florida, but it has to strike a balance with other pressing issues, such as protecting the environment.

After all, he said, it is one of Florida’s main selling points.

“Like you and all Floridians here,” Swoope said, “we have a beautiful environment, we want to enjoy that. It brings 100 million visitors to our state a year — we’re going to protect that.”

“And so there are times on a permit it’s okay to say no. … But what you don’t want to do is get into a process that goes on and on and on, where the company cannot mitigate the risk.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.