Culture of innovation

It is only through teamwork that Gainesville's economic leaders will begin to ease the city's underemployment and poverty issues.


Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 2, 2005 at 10:57 a.m.

Gainesville is for all practical purposes a company town. And the company is government.

Nearly 34 percent of the jobs in this university community are government jobs, as compared to just 3.5 percent in manufacturing.

The good news in that regard is that government isn't going to go away, which makes for a certain stability in the community's economic destiny.

But the bad news is that the lack of job diversity tends to depress wages and limit economic opportunity. One consequence of having a "government economy" is that 23 percent of our residents live below the federal poverty level. That's a steep price to pay for "stability."

As Santa Fe Community College President Jackson Sasser put it at a well-attended Economic Development Summit on Wednesday. "a 23 percent poverty rate with all the resources we have in this community is criminal. If you don't have a job, the dignity of life is not there."

The irony is that many of the necessary elements are already in place to greatly diversify Gainesville and Alachua County's economy and lessen its dependence on public tax dollars.

The University of Florida has made a major commitment to moving ideas out of its research labs and into the marketplace. Santa Fe Community College can provide the job training needed to sustain a high-tech work force. The city and county both have active economic development programs. The Chamber of Commerce has been involved for years in an effort to recruit new businesses and help existing ones grow.

And yet, we remain a government economy with a high poverty rate and a low unemployment rate that looks good on paper until you realize that Gainesville has a huge underemployment problem - that a lot of people with high skills are trapped in low-skill, low-pay jobs.

So what will it take to transform our government economy into an "innovative economy"? That phrase was used several times during the summit by Noah Pickus, associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, who talked about the government-university-private sector partnership that helped create and sustain North Carolina's famed "Research Triangle."

A successful economic development effort, Pickus said, is about more than offering incentives or aggressively recruiting out-of-town companies.

"It's about creating a culture of innovation," he said. "Most importantly, it's about creating networks. Technology can drive the economy, but it's human relations that drive innovation."

The community's economic development deficits are easy to calculate: Inadequate infrastructure in terms of roads, industrial and office parks, lab facilities and the like; an airport that is still struggling; a shortage of local venture capital; an inability to compete with communities that offer generous incentives for job creation and so on.

All of those deficits create challenges for a community seeking to diversify its economy. But a common impediment to coping with those challenges is the absence of a unity of purpose among the major economic development players, both public and private.

Pickus put it in slightly different terms when he told summit attendees that what's needed is an "air traffic controller" for economic development.

This is the second local economic development summit in the space of a year. Last year's summit was barely noticed and sparsely attended. This year's summit attracted more than 100 people and generated considerably more enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, not all of the necessary players were in attendance: No county commissioners or school board members showed up, for instance. And their absence is part of the larger problem that Pickus spoke of: The lack of consistent, coordinated leadership for economic development.

In an innovative economy, Pickus said, "things happen quickly." And in successful communities, he added, "they happen in teams."

Gainesville City Commissioner Warren Nielsen is fond of saying that, from an economic perspective, "We're sitting on a gold mine and don't even know it." He means that despite the world-class science being generated at UF, Alachua County's natural and cultural amenities and the climate of tolerance and creativity that comes with being a university community, Gainesville has barely scratched the surface in terms of its economic potential.

What's required to better mine that economic gold is considerably more leadership, teamwork, networking and master planning among both public and private sector partners than has ever been evident in the past.

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