ORLANDO (CBSMiami/NSF) – Both finalists to run Enterprise Florida will go before the economic-development agency’s full board Thursday after a rapidly growing tropical storm in the Caribbean led to a change in plans.
With Gov. Rick Scott watching the tropics and unavailable to meet the candidates, the Enterprise Florida President & CEO Search Committee agreed to hold off on recommending a single finalist Wednesday.
“We had certainly hoped to come here today and move forward,” said committee Chairman Stan Connally, president and CEO of Pensacola-based Gulf Power. “Unfortunately, because of a tropical storm named Matthew, that’s just been named, our governor needs to spend time on that issue and unfortunately won’t be able to spend time with our two candidates.”
Scott’s absence didn’t keep the committee from separately holding interviews with Michael Finney, a former adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and Richard Biter, a retired state Department of Transportation assistant secretary.
The committee previously announced it wanted Scott to meet with Finney and Biter before the board makes its selection for the president and CEO job, which will pay $175,000 to $200,000 a year.
Scott is chairman of the board for Enterprise Florida, a public-private agency that has come under intense scrutiny from state lawmakers during the past couple of years.
Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has questioned the use of taxpayer dollars to help fund the agency. During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers rejected Scott’s request for $250 million in economic-incentive money for Enterprise Florida. That led to the resignation of former Enterprise Florida President and CEO Bill Johnson and cuts in agency jobs and expenses.
Finney, who until October 2015 was Snyder’s senior economic-growth adviser and had headed the public-private Michigan Economic Development Corp., said many of the challenges are the same for Florida and the “other peninsula state” despite the climate difference.
He said Michigan has focused development efforts on recruiting businesses tied to automotive research, rather than just manufacturing, to rebuild the state’s automotive industry, while promoting the state’s less “obvious” tourism and agriculture industries.
“You couldn’t make the case of having the entertainment venues you have (in Florida), of Disney and Universal and so many others. Those don’t exist in Michigan, so we built our narrative around the lakes and other tourism assets, the arts, the culture,” Finney said. “Then we funded a tourism effort in a very aggressive way that had been cyclical in the past.”
Finney also said Enterprise Florida shouldn’t let an inability to sway lawmakers on the funding issue diminish the need for the business-recruitment agency.
“Our core goal is not to cut costs and chase dollars, it really is to find economic opportunities that could help move this state forward,” Finney said. “I’d spend most of my time trying to figure how to get the organization outward-focused again and focused on those business opportunities that will demonstrate that this organization is definitely an important resource for the state of Florida.”
Committee members asked Biter, whose son Jesse Biter has been appointed twice by Scott to the Enterprise Florida board, to roll-play different scenarios on how he’d promote the agency to out-of-state business owners and to lawmakers reluctant to approve funding.
Biter said he’d change “incentives” to “investment.”
“If we’re producing graduates, if we’re spending a boat-load of money on education in Florida, which is good, which I support, what are we doing to keep those jobs, those graduates?” Biter said. “Are we subsidizing Georgia? California? New York?”
Biter joined the Department of Transportation in 2011 and previously was deputy director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s intermodal network.
After the meeting, committee members declined to name a favorite. Enterprise Florida initially received 101 applications for the job.
“They both have their strengths,” said committee member Eric Silagy, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light. “One has a lot more experience in Florida. One has a lot more experience in economic development.”
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.