One of Florida’s best respected business leaders read Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature the riot act Tuesday over insufficient support for business development.
Charles Cobb Jr. was polite about it — courtly even — during an address to the Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee.
But he was clear that the state’s leaders need to invest more in building Florida’s economy.
“For the Legislature to totally gut Rick Scott’s recommendation of $250 million for Enterprise Florida, I think, is not wise,” Cobb said.
“Many of these large incentives are questionable. I think we do not have a good enough read on investment analysis to know whether some of these incentives are good. But not funding Enterprise Florida is really wrong.”
Scaling back or eliminating the organization “would be very, very unwise,” he said.
Cobb is senior managing director and chief executive officer of Cobb Partners, an investment company. Previously, he occupied top posts at some of Florida’s most important companies — including Disney Development Co. and Arvida Corp. He has served on the boards of directors of nine of the country’s largest corporations and as ambassador to Iceland under George H.W. Bush.
He’s been active in Florida’s economic development for decades, and during his speech recounted the somewhat bumpy history of those efforts. In biotech, for example, “a new industry has been created. New jobs have been created,” Cobb said.
A legislative initiative during the Charlie Christ administration, allowing the Florida pension fund to invest 1.5 percent of its assets in venture capital, Cobb deemed it “a roaring success.” Florida has reaped an 11 percent compounded return, he said, plus 15,000 jobs paying an average $85,000.
“Florida is one of the leaders in biotech because of that initiative. In my judgment, it has to be expanded,” Cobb said.
“Florida has been blessed,” he said. “We’ve had really good governors — Republican and Democrat. We’ve had really good legislatures — Republican and Democrat. We’ve had really enlightened business leadership.”
Yet the state no longer leads in economic development, Cobb said.
Scott’s No. 1 priority in office has been job creation. Yet Cobb criticized the governor for vetoing a $100,000 appropriation that would have allowed Enterprise Florida to lobby foreign governments.
“There is going to be [business] consolidation in the Americas,” Cobb said. “And, right now, Panama City is ahead of Florida. Some other regions in this country — Atlanta and Houston — are more aggressive in that area than Florida.”
Enterprise Florida is the state’s public-private development agency and has become something of a political football of late. The Legislature this year quashed Scott’s push to secure $250 million for the organization; opponents called the effort corporate welfare.
Bill Johnson, the organization’s director, stepped down shortly after the end of session, and Enterprise Florida slashed its budget. A search committee plans to select from among five finalists to replace him at the end of this month.
Cobb doubts whether Enterprise Florida can attract top talent given its resources and the salary on offer — in the low six digits, he said.
“In my judgment, we’re not going to get a superstar to really drive Florida forward with the budget that has been created,” he said.
Cobb was asked what he thought of Donald Trump’s pledge to impose punitive tariffs if elected president. “I think it’s a disaster. It’s just a disaster,” he said. “As is his policy on trying to punish our NATO allies.”
The United States is a trading power that has done well through trade agreements including NAFTA and the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership — which Trump and Hillary Clinton both now oppose, he said.
“My judgment is that it’s bravado. Whenever President Trump or President Clinton gets into office, they’re going to recognize the reality,” Cobb said.
“I’ll bet anybody in the room whatever you want to bet: The Trans Pacific Partnership will be approved, even though we have both presidents saying they’re against it. It’s so important.”