The future of Florida: Charting a new course

In the fall of 2007, as home prices in Florida began slipping and population growth braked drastically from what had been a 1,000-person-a-day clip, Wall Street Journal reporter Conor Dougherty wrote an article headlined “Is Florida Over?”
The story cataloged a host of challenges to Florida’s traditional model of growth that depended on cheap homes, retirees and tourists. Dougherty described a new Florida of expensive houses, costly insurance and congested roads — one growing less attractive to retirees, whom other neighboring states were eagerly courting. Time magazine chimed in with a piece musing on whether Florida had become the “Sunset State.”

The stories created an instant public relations migraine for many economic development professionals in the state who worried how the portrayal of Florida would affect recruitment efforts and growth. “We had quite a number of Wall Street Journal articles that really painted storm clouds over Florida,” says Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “And if you’re a site selection company who’s looking at relocating to Florida, you’re reading all the same articles we are.”

But the articles — and a decade’s worth of other economic change they largely ignored — helped crystallize feelings that Florida’s old sunshine-and-tourism marketing ploy no longer reflected the way the state was evolving.

Wilson and others in the business community embraced the idea that the state needed to retool the way it presented itself. There is “nothing wrong with Florida’s brand,” he says — the state is simply encountering the challenges that come as it matures economically. “Our opportunity is to have more and more people talk about what is the brand of Florida, what should it be and what can we do to make sure what we want it to be is in sync with what it is.”

To highlight more than the state’s weather and theme parks, the Florida Chamber of Commerce in 2009 started its Florida Scorecard program, directing attention to how the state ranks on everything from educational achievement to venture capital investment and heart disease. Gov. Rick Scott made economic development a centerpiece of his platform, personally cold-calling CEOs in other states to tout Florida.

Economists pointed out that despite the state’s troubles during the recession, it hadn’t lost all its allure. “I wouldn’t agree that Florida is over in any sense of population growth,” says University of Florida economics professor Stan Smith. “It’s still growing, just not as rapidly.”

For the full article: Florida Trend