Crews work to build the Loews Hotel between South Calhoun and Gadsden streets in Downtown Tallahassee Thursday.
(Photo: Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat)
As long as live oaks have shaded the streets of Tallahassee, a debate over growth has whistled through their branches.
While few argue Tallahassee should see no growth at all, the forces opposing growth seem to win more than they lose – in the past couple weeks, efforts to build a new midtown parking garage and south-side police station headquarters were derailed.
The debate over growth is tricky because, well, what is growth? Are we talking about growing infrastructure, such as roads? Or housing developments? Or retail and business projects? Or the economy as a whole?
We’d like to view the issue through the latter lens – the overall economy of Tallahassee.
By almost any measure, Tallahassee’s economic growth has lagged behind Florida’s other top cities. Population growth has also fallen behind the state average. Looking at Florida’s 25 most populous counties, since 2010 Leon County ranks dead last in total population growth (5.2 percent).
In fact, just recently, Tallahassee dropped a notch on the state’s largest city’s list, dropping behind Cape Coral into ninth place.
Part of the problem is that one of the bedrock’s of Tallahassee’s economy – the state workforce – has been shrinking. By now, Tallahassee residents should have learned that we can no longer rely on government jobs to drive our economy.
So, is low growth what we want?
Some might say: “Yes! Let’s keep Tallahassee’s small-town charm.”
The problem with the “good ol’ days” is that they are a mirage. The reality of Tallahassee is that while it might remain sleepy and safe in areas that still show off white picket fences, there are other parts of town that have paid the price for the city’s failure to keep up with growth.
Here is a cold, hard reality: If you are going to oppose growth in most forms – whether you live in Tallahassee or anywhere else – then you need to own the consequences. In Tallahassee, those consequences include a crime rate that has been the worst in the state, dreadful rankings when it comes to poverty and stark issues with economic segregation.
This isn’t some theory, it’s Econ 101. A stagnant economy means fewer jobs. Fewer jobs leads to crime. A lack of new development (we’ll define what we mean by development shortly) means the tax base doesn’t grow, which puts pressure on local governments to either raise tax rates or cut spending.
In short, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.
Where are the big fish?
Yes, with growth comes risk.
There is a balance between rampant, unchecked expansion and the type of moribund growth Tallahassee has experienced in recent years.
But the development apparent to a Tallahassee resident’s eye (new nursing homes, office space, retail, etc) can be just the illusion of growth.
Without new population growth, those types of projects are either responding to changing demographics or, more likely, part of the natural turnover from old to new.
What really spurs an economy is new business and industry.
Question: When’s the last time you read in the Democrat about a major new jobs project being landed by our local Office of Economic Vitality? We’re talking about a deal where a new industry opened or relocated, bringing new jobs and investment.
That’s what real growth looks like – people moving here and getting paid a good salary, then spending that money on local goods and services. Companies hiring new workers, who then need medical care, new cars, meal at restaurants, plumbers for their new homes and more.
Yes, they will bring more traffic and require more retail support, but whatever minor diminishment in small town charm is surely more than offset in seeing a rising tide of employment and prosperity and a corresponding decrease in poverty and crime.
But Tallahassee hasn’t landed an economic development fish like that since 2007 when Danfoss came to town. Danfoss is a huge success story, but economic development can’t be a one-act play.
An underachieving airport
The city of Tallahassee and Leon County should have as an absolute top priority recruiting new business and industry to our area. Strong growth in business and industry is the salve that can heal many of our area’s chronic wounds.
Part of that commitment should be to have plenty of “shovel ready” sites and “occupancy-ready” square feet available so that when industries inquire, we have something to show them.
Currently, we don’t.
It’s why proper utilization of Tallahassee’s airport is so vital. While you may only view TLH through a passenger service lens, it also has untapped potential as a commercial hub. And, just as importantly, it is home to lots and lots of land, which should be utilized for the very type of recruitment we’re talking about.
Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen under the current management structure. Tallahassee churns through airport directors at a dizzying pace. It is currently advertising for another.
Rather than watch that movie for the umpteenth time, the city should instead move to the “airport authority” model, as has been recommended by the Chamber. While airport issues vainly fight for the attention of city leaders and staff among a blizzard of other departments and projects, an authority would bring laser focus to improvements.
There is a reason that one of the most asked questions on Google is “why is Tallahassee Airport so expensive.”
Haven’t we suffered long enough with an underachieving airport without trying something new – something that has worked for airports such as those in Tampa and Orlando and across the nation?
Grow or die
Back to the OEV, when it was formed in the wake of the EDC breakup, we wrote about how it would ultimately be measured by wins and losses. Well, it’s 28 months later and we don’t see much flashing on the scoreboard. Sure, there are new things being built and that brings important economic benefit, but until Danfoss-like industries choose to locate here, the economic needle will not move enough.
One thing that attracted Danfoss was the FSU Magnetic Laboratory. We have written multiple times about how this should be the crown jewel of local economic development.
The “Magnetic Task Force,” chaired by Danfoss’s Ricardo Schneider and Steve Evans is a great start. The group has contracted with a firm to provide leads – this is just the type of innovative thinking we need.
But it is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to our county’s economic development efforts.
Grow or die is the reality of our economy, especially given that there is all sorts of room for judicious, responsible, environmentally friendly expansion of our local economy.
In our next installment, we will discuss what can and should be done to protect and enhance our environment.
But in the meantime – with apologies to Andy Dufresne in “Shawshank Redemption” – it’s time to get busy growing, or get busy dying.
About this series
This editorial is one of a series of editorials on the way forward in the wake of the ongoing FBI investigation at City Hall and the indictment of one of its commissioners. We want to hear from you. Send letters to the editor (up to 200 words) or Your Turn columns (up to 500 words) to email@example.com. Please include your address for verification purposes only, and if you send a Your Turn, also include a photo and 1-2 line bio of yourself. You can also submit anonymous Zing!s at Tallahassee.com/Zing.