The conference room at the high-end Sawgrass Marriott at Ponte Vedra Beach where Enterprise Florida held its presentation Thursday morning is, appropriately enough, called the Champions Room. That’s appropriate given that those attending were among of the best and brightest in the Sunshine State’s business community. It was also appropriate given that the speakers were people from humble origins who rose to the pinnacle of their profession.
Take your pick. There was the man who grew up in public housing to become a billionaire, then two-term governor of Florida. There also was the man who moved here from Pakistan with nothing but lint in his pockets, to become a billionaire many times over, and owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Fulham Football Club. Then there was the son of a TV repairman, who played high school football, became an accountant, and then parlayed that into becoming chairman of the Florida Republican Party, then mayor of the biggest city in Florida.
Rick Scott. Shad Khan. Lenny Curry. None is commonly mistaken for an evangelist, yet each sang from the same hymnal and read from the same prayer book Thursday morning: The Gospel of Enterprise Florida. They made the case that without appropriate funding, job creation and quality of life would languish.
Curry, recently elected mayor of Jacksonville, spoke first.
Curry described Scott as “the hardest-working governor in the country,” and Khan as one of the few “bootstrappers” on the Forbes 400 list.
Khan, Curry said, is an “international business man, travelling and doing business all over the world.”
The fact that Khan was in Ponte Vedra to “make the case for Enterprise Florida” was clearly significant, Curry said.
“Funding for Enterprise Florida is critical and important for Northeast Florida,” the mayor said.
“It’s how we get deals done.”
Before 2010, when Scott was elected, “Florida was bleeding jobs,” a hemorrhage stymied by Scott’s “commitment to job creation.”
“This is not the time to take the foot off the pedal,” Curry said.
The solution? “Funding, funding, funding,” the Jacksonville mayor said.
Khan was up next, and he laid it bare.
Khan, who spent most of his adult life in Illinois, much of that under the tender mercies of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, wakes up in the morning, he said, and “I thank God that I am a Floridian.”
Living in Florida, he added, is the “culmination of the American Dream for him,” one made possible by the underwhelming tenure of the previous owners of the Jaguars.
“Nobody should sell an NFL team,” said Khan. However, under Wayne Weavers’ ownership, “the franchise was not living up to its potential.”
Part of the reason? A flagging economy.
Khan asserted that “economic growth” was necessary to “stabilize the franchise.”
Jacksonville was a prime place for that, Khan said, because of its location, its talent, and “its key asset: young people.”
To get the growth needed to stabilize the franchise and the economy, “we need proud, bold, and committed people to make the case” of “what a great environment and business climate Jacksonville is.”
Khan, who often is accused without real support of wanting to move the Jaguars to London, explained how the annual games in London are an “opportunity to promote Jacksonville.” In the past few years, the mayor and civic leaders have accompanied Khan, with mostly positive results. Some have said former Mayor Alvin Brown underwhelmed on those trips, a factor in the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce not endorsing his re-election.
“The key priority (in these trips has been) growth,” Khan said. “The more we get into it, the more excited I am by the potential.”
The potential of the London junkets, Khan said, has to be augmented with smart investments at home. Downtown development and the Shipyards project, Khan said, projected “self-confidence and gravitas,” asserting that “Jacksonville is a great city, with a tremendous amount of potential.”
And such development is necessary. Khan remarked, “As you’re approaching the stadium, the prison is on the left hand side,” the “polluted shipyards” are en route, and the highlight of the trip is the Maxwell House coffee factory.
“This needs to be a lot better,” he said.
“We’re committed to playing a key role in downtown. And the city is a key partner in the advancement of Jacksonville.”
As well, the state.
“I want to applaud Governor Scott,” Khan said. “If there is one lesson [to be derived] from Florida, it’s that economic development,” when prioritized, “leads to other things down the road.”
Such development can’t happen without Enterprise Florida, he said, and commented that the funding deficit is “disconcerting” because “the returns on funding are phenomenal.”
He urged the Legislature to “loosen the purse strings,” lest opportunity for corporate recruitment be lost.
Khan said, “There’s nothing iconic about Jacksonville. We need to do that. And the Jaguars can play a role.”
But the implication was clear: the Jaguars can’t do it alone. Neither can the city of Jacksonville. Which is where Enterprise Florida comes in.
Scott was next up, and it definitely was his room, complete with a standing ovation for the “jobs governor.”
“We are blessed,” Scott said. “People come to our state and do big things(that) change the direction of our state.”
Those things create jobs, which help children, grandchildren, and “the poorest kids in society,” he said.
Referring to the constant job competition with Texas, Scott said, “I call Rick Perry once a month and remind him how well we’re doing.”
“We can win everywhere (in terms of corporate recruitment), yet we do have to fund” Enterprise Florida.
The return on the investment is 10 times the money the state of Florida puts up, he said.
“We are doing so well, so many deals have been done,” Scott said, yet the fund is “down to $9 million.”
Tourism and other sectors are still thriving, yet Florida “can’t always rely on home sales, tourism, and construction.”
“We’ve got to get more corporate offices, more advanced manufacturing. … We have a shot at companies like GE,” Scott said, but added that it won’t happen without capital.
“I want to invest $100 million, $200 million,” Scott said, contending that money spent is a “guaranteed return” on investment.
Scott then turned his attention to the “pay as you go” model proposed by the Legislature that the governor likened to telling a company to “come back and beg for money” to satisfy an established commitment.
The big question for #jaxpol watchers: How is the relationship with former Brown enthusiast Khan developing?
Describing Khan’s presence as a “huge statement,” Curry spoke of commonalities between the Jaguars owner and him.
“We both want to see Jacksonville thrive.” Both men are “committed” and “working to that end.”
Curry, meanwhile, while working to “bring new business” to Jacksonville and Florida at large, also recognizes how important it is to “take care of what you have.” To that end, he is “spending time with CEOs in town,” assuring them that his administration is committed to ensuring they are able to meet the challenges of the years ahead.
During his inaugural speech, and beyond, Curry has been cognizant of the time factor, saying more than once that four years is over before you know it. To make his four years count, he recognizes the essential role of Enterprise Florida. And in Scott and Khan, he has two key allies.