Campaigning for a competitive edge

Austin Deely works in the systems operations center checking signal quality of Cox service to newly installed customers.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 11:24 p.m.


'Spin off' jobs

According to the Council for Economic Outreach end report, for every new job created or retained, additional jobs are expected to be added to support the needs of those employees. Based on a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study, these are some of the "spin-off" jobs that would be needed by the 3,530 jobs created by the Competitive Edge campaign:

  • Finance, insurance, real estate: 106
  • Construction: 106
  • Public administration: 106
  • Other services: 106
  • Transportation: 106
  • Wholesale, retail, entertainment: 1,588

  • When 352 Media Group, a Web design and multi-media company, provided 25 of their Gainesville employees with training in 2003, they did it, in part, with $11,400 in Council for Economic Outreach (CEO) grant money.
    The classes helped employees become more proficient as designers, programmers and project managers, learning skills to improve the work they were doing, and learn new areas of technology so the company could expand.
    "Since we're in a fast-paced field, we are constantly looking for new challenges and the next endeavour," said Jeff Wilson, the company's founder and chief executive officer. "By providing training, we gave employees new skill sets as well as increased morale."
    352 Media Group was just one of more than 24 businesses that were assisted by Competitive Edge, a five-year campaign by CEO to attract new businesses to Alachua County, help current businesses expand and assist in the retraining of employees.
    Brent Christensen, president and chief economic development officer for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, said "This was a time of great economic uncertainty. It was a difficult go at first.
    "But we ended the campaign on a very optimistic note." In fact, more jobs for the local economy were created over these five years than the previous six years, he said.
    Despite the general economic downturn after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the then 8-month-old campaign forged on, and over the next 51 months, had a hand in:
  • Creating and retaining 3,530 jobs in the Greater Gainesville area;
  • Assisting 21 businesses in their expansion needs;
  • Recruiting new businesses that brought with them $175 million in new capital investments; and, in the process helped increase the commercial taxable value of land from $2.39 billion in 1999 to $3.29 billion in 2003 through expansion and location of new businesses.
    Dick Mahaffey, city president for SunTrust Bank and the outgoing chairman for CEO, called the impact of the program "significant' and Competitive Edge "an exceptional program."
    Good return on investment Competitive Edge was funded by more than 130 investors, including most all the major corporations in Alachua County. Some were as small as PRO iNK and individuals; others as large as BellSouth, University of Florida and Shands HealthCare. Through voluntary pledges beginning in 2001, $3 million was raised, giving CEO approximately $600,000 a year to work with.
    Mahaffey said he was enthused by the outpouring of monetary support, particularly by individuals and notably younger retirees.
    "There are a lot of people who were fortunate enough to be able to retire in their 50s, but were still interested in the entrepreneurial side of their lives, such as becoming consultants."
    CEO staff used its funds to host site-selection consultants, provide grants for retraining, assist with permitting and financing costs of relocation or expansion and other incentives.
    Among those businesses assisted were Atkins TempTec, which manufactures food-industry thermometers, in 2001 with a training grant to retain 75 employees; Exactech, which manufactures joint replacements, with a $4 million expansion in 2002 and training of 100 more employees; and Nationwide Insurance, which expanded with a $5 million wing in 2003 and trained or retrained 1,058 employees.
    CEO was behind Eclipse Aviation's decision in 2004 to locate a $5 million jet service center at the Gainesville Regional Airport and was instrumental in North Florida Regional Medical Center's $75 million expansion in 2003.
    CEO's latest success came when SYSCO, a Fortune 500 national food distribution company, decided last fall to build a statewide distribution center near Alachua.
    Marketing the area How does one sell Alachua County to the corporate world?
    Christensen and Ann Collett, vice president for CEO and public policy, routinely network with site-location consultants, taking a few trips each year to spread the good word. They also host visits.
    "We are not just competing with (other locations in) Florida or the Southeast, or even other areas of the United States," Christensen said. With the cost of telecommunications going down, it is becoming easier to do business overseas, he said. In fact, one of the projects currently being courted is also considering a location in India.
    With growing technology comes a growing need for technology-savvy workers. "We need to fit the workforce to the skills needed by jobs needed today. Formerly there was training funds available only if you were adding jobs. The state now provides incumbent worker training, such as what Cox Communications got (to train workers in their new telephone service)."
    Richard Mulligan, spokesman for Cox Communications, said the addition of digital telephone service required an upgrade of the regional operations center on NW 43rd Street. Some employees were hired, and other current employees were retrained.
    "You don't always add jobs, you upgrade your current workforce. We realized if we don't continue to invest in workers in our state, the jobs will go elsewhere. We are investing in our people," Christensen said.
    What's the attraction? What tips the scale in Alachua County's favor initially is its combination of small community with a major university and its talented work force.
    "If you look, at first blush, our unemployment (which is 2.6 percent, consistently lower than the state and national average), many businesses will pass right over us because they think there isn't a workforce," said Christensen. "People we get understand the dynamic: there is a lot of underemployment. We need to find jobs that provide a career ladder."
    "One of the things that concern us is the inventory of industrial and business properties. We want to make sure we have a good strong inventory of buildings. Often, when these projects come, there is a 24-hour turnaround if there is property that meets their needs."
    The final touch that spells success is the quality of life. Alachua County has attributes a community its size normally doesn't have: the Phillips Center for Performing arts, museums, sports, the Butterfly Rainforest, said Christensen.
    Christensen said he is buoyed by the success of the last five years.
    "I've had colleagues all over the country report they've been dry while we were working Wal-Mart and SYSCO," he said. "We've done quite well for ourselves, given the state of the economy.
    "We got nine projects over three weeks in the middle of December, which is a crazy amount. If we get just one, it'll be a huge success. But this bodes well for the future."
    What now? CEO's strategic plan for the next five years - called Opportunity 2010 - will be very specific in types of projects and activities that will have the greatest impact on the economy, he said.
    CEO Chair Mahaffey said the new campaign will again reach out to the community to get renewals and draw in businesses that weren't approached before, but perhaps have seen a meaningful impact - directly or indirectly - since 2001.
    Mahaffey, who becomes the new chairman of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce Jan. 24, said more than an improved economy came out of the program.
    "We have made strides in our ability to interact with government; I do sense a positive direction. There have been a number of governmental officials along on our intercity visits - which, by the way, were paid for by our respective companies, not by CEO funds - and we have learned about each other's personalities."
    Interaction, understanding and collaboration are other good things that came out of the effort, he said.
    "As our town grows up, we've got to develop a better dialog with the rest of the factors of the community. There was not so much a matter of the myopic view - the my way or the highway; NIMBY (not in my back yard) - in the towns we visited. I firmly believe there is a way to be responsible in growing our community.
    "Environmentalists and developers - we must have a meaningful collaboration, understanding there is a give and take. We need to all walk away from the table feeling all positions were heard and there was a meaningful resolution."
    Marina Blomberg can be reached at (352) 374-5025 or
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