With 840,000 Floridians out of work, it's not merely interesting to find out why companies come to the state and why they leave, Carrie Blanchard says.
"It is imperative," said Blanchard, director of research and policy for the Florida Chamber Foundation.
Trouble finding skilled workers, property taxes and housing affordabilty rank high on the negative list in what the foundation calls a first-of-its-kind survey of 19 firms that relocated to or from Florida.
The state gets sunnier marks on weather, crime and transportation, but Florida is looking for all the ways it can to turn on its business charm as it struggles to climb out of a housing and unemployment hole deeper than most states suffered.
The news isn't all bad. The state gained 1,152 more firms than it lost in 2011, chamber research shows. It stole more companies than it surrendered to New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.
On the other hand, Florida suffered a net loss of businesses to South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, California and Washington.
Nearly one out of four companies surveyed, or 22.7 percent, said they were "not satisfied" with the ability to recruit a skilled workforce in Florida, the survey found. In comparison, one in 10 at most expressed dissatisfaction with safety, infrastructure and culture.
"Training programs to develop relevant workforce skills are likely to help companies find appropriate workers," the foundation's report said. "In addition, many firms indicated a need for highly skilled labor, which suggests a policy role for specialized education and training."
To the extent education and training involve public dollars, the trick for Florida is to make itself more attractive without heaping on something that's never especially popular in business surveys: taxes.
Nearly half the firms found Florida's property tax system "somewhat of a burden" and 42 percent expressed similar sentiments about the state's corporate income tax. On the plus side, the state lacks a personal income tax, and that's often used as a selling point for relocating CEOs and their workers alike.
In particular, Palm Beach County's employment fortunes often owe a lot to where key executives want to be, business development veterans say.
"The No. 1 reason why they come is quality of life -- typically relocations or expansions have a lot to do with where the CEOs want to live," said Kelly Smallridge, president of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.
In her experience, factors pulling them in include: Access to Latin and Caribbean markets; three ports nearby; diverse and multilingual workforce; plenty of local attorneys, accountants and bankers; no state income tax; and, yes, affordable housing -- at least compared to, say, Boston, New York or San Jose.
Among the reasons why they leave or don't come: Mergers or cost-cutting by a parent company that consolidates operations in another place; sometimes they can't get technically skilled workers; it's too far south for certain warehouse and distribution needs; and delays getting approvals to develop property. Smallridge said rules can vary in 38 different different municipalities in Palm Beach County. At her group's urging 15 cities have adopted an expedited permitting ordinance.
There's sometimes a perception that education isn't strong, but "if they will just give me a chance to let them tour a school, I never lose a deal," Smallridge said. "I wonder if we lose deals because we never got a chance."
Perception can be a problem on other levels, said Russell Allen, president of BioFlorida, a biotech trade group based in West Palm Beach.
"We're known as a great place to visit and a tourism state, but that may have obscured the fact we're a good place to do business," Allen said. "We are the fastest-growing state in the country in creating biotech and pharmaceutical jobs."
That didn't happen entirely by friendly waves and postcards. Florida taxpayers have spent $1.5 billion to lure medical and biotech ventures to the state, including Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute in Palm Beach County.
Last week biotech firm Somahlution of Fargo, N.D. announced plans to move its headquarters to Jupiter and hire 25 people over three years. The firm, a start-up focusing on preserving organs to be transplanted, is receiving $150,000 in tax incentives from state and city programs. Company officials said they were moving partly for promiximity to other biotech firms in the area.
The closeness will be "advantageous to the future success of our organization," Somahlution Chief Executive Satish Chandran said.
Texas is a "fierce competitor" when it comes to incentive packages to lure companies, Smallridge said. Other tough rivals: Northern Virginia and the Carolinas.
Suburbs of Washington D.C. offer proximity to federal agencies for those doing government business, while the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, for example, touts a range of university-related and tech-incubator programs.
Still, 73 percent of the firms surveyed came to or left Florida without help from a regional partnership or economic development organization, the chamber foundation's survey found.
And there's a limit to how much tax issues drive the decisions of individual companies, anecdotal examples outside the survey suggest. For instance, Steve and Lori Leveen moved catalog retailer Levenger to Delray Beach from Boston in 1989 because Steve's father told them there was plenty of cheap commercial space available here. Steve Leveen said taxes never really factored into the decision.
Florida has plenty of strengths but it still maturing in ways that matter to specific industries and companies, Allen said.
"There are a lot of wealthy individuals in this state, but we don't have a lot of bioscience investors," he said. "They're just not as present as elsewhere. It's still not where we'd like to be but we're moving in the right direction."
Staff writer Jeff Ostrowski contributed to this story.
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