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‘State at an economic crossroads’

By Staff | Apr 5, 2008

Florida stands at a pivotal point in history that requires better long-term planning and a new economic vision, the vice president of the state’s chamber foundation told a group of Lee County business leaders Friday.

Despite the current slowdown, population projections show that the state will have about 28 million residents by 2030 and that continued growth necessitates a different way of looking at Florida’s future.

“We have got to make decisions because the next 10 million people are coming here, and we have to plan smarter than we did for the last 10 million,” Florida Chamber Foundation Executive Vice President Tony Carvajal said at Friday’s Council for Progress meeting.

Carvajal compared Florida’s position in the 21st century as that of New York in the 19th and California in the 20th centuries in that the state has massive potential for growth and opportunity. He also pointed out that Florida has the country’s 19th largest economy that, even though the growth rate is slowing, is bringing in the equivalent of a high school graduating class every day

“We have built a machine that basically generated a million new jobs from 2000 to 2006,” said Carvajal. “We have an economy that is positioning to compete globally.”

For more than a decade, Florida set up its economy to thrive off of construction and growth. Few places in the state are more familiar with that model than Lee County. Retail, trade and construction make up about 40 percent of the county’s total employment.

As southwest Florida rides the upward and downward swings that come with that model, other states are copying the low cost economic growth strategies. Carvajal said that Texas, Georgia, and the Carolinas have become major competitors in that market and argued that Florida needs to move beyond that model.

“That works for a little while,” he said. “But we are never going back to a low-cost state, it’s just part of the reality that we deal with.”

In the half hour presentation Carvajal issued a “clarion call” for state and local governments to change their approach to developing infrastructure and economic investment. As the country’s fourth largest provider of high technology jobs Florida’s real future is in its ability to create a workforce that can power a market where eight in 10 jobs require a college degree.

“We have got to understand what will drive our economy in the future,” Carvajal said. “Countries across the world are recognizing that human capital is where the potential is.”

“The rest of the world gets it,” he added. “You are not going to compete with cheap hands and cheap labor. We will compete in Florida as part of the global economy based on our knowledge.”

Though Florida ranks in the bottom half of the nation’s primary education rankings, the state has made improvements in its primary and middle school test scores.

Carvajal acknowledged the fact that Florida still needs to make great strides in its graduation rates but also pointed out that the statistics tend to hide the individual stories of the state’s sharpest minds.

“We’ve got some really smart people in this state,” he said. “What we have to do is sell the positive messages of the education pipeline.”