The Fort Lauderdale Forum’s final meeting of the season delivered its always interesting and provocative program to over 60 attendees who gathered at 7:30 am Wednesday, May 27th at the FAU Education Complex downtown with a high-profile panel of five city business leaders and several additional invited speakers weighing on the subject,
‘Fort Lauderdale’s Economy: What Can We Do Now?’ Panelists included Doug Egan, President of Stiles Corporation; Frank Herhold, Executive Director of the Marine Industries Association; Dan Lindblad, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce; Christopher Pollock, VP Corporate Development for the Watermark Management Group, LLC/IAG Florida, Inc.; and Stan Eichelbaum, International Economic Development expert and consultant now based here in Fort Lauderdale.
After opening remarks by The’s Forum Director, Robert Dressler, the panel presentations began with MIASF Director Frank Herhold’s discussion of the state of the marine and boating industry around Fort Lauderdale today.
- Mr. Herhold cited a number of statistics demonstrating the economic importance of the industry to Fort Lauderdale, South Florida and to all of Florida, noting that the industry accounts for almost 1/3 of Florida’s GDP and Fort Lauderdale alone accounts for almost _ of all yacht charters and brokered sales in all of Florida. The industry is fragile, as a boat or yacht is not something one necessarily ‘needs’ and is therefore quite economically sensitive. Boating is a family lifestyle, however, and provides other business relationship opportunities for retail and wholesale banking beyond merely the boat loan. A major problem right now, however, is that lenders have curtailed their lending to the industry, on both a wholesale and retail basis, despite an outstanding record of creditworthiness and Mr. Herhold urged banks to step up and increase their funding commitments to the industry.
- Other issues facing the industry as a major economic engine for the city and region include regulatory issues, such as city permitting process, which simply takes too long and is often the responsibility of a city employee who doesn’t necessarily have the marine industry expertise to understand the issues. To address this problem, Mr. Herhold called for the creation of a Marine Ombudsman position to help the permitting group facilitate the permitting process.
- The annual Boat Show provides a major economic impact to the city, but competition is growing from other countries that recognize this economic impact and are funding competing shows and events that could challenge us. The FLBS needs the city’s help in terms of keeping the show up-to-date and attractive to maintain that economic impact, including dredging of the Bahia Mar marina access areas and other marina show venues to be able to handle the superyachts that are a major draw for the show. And they need to look for other innovative ways to partner with the city.
- In closing, Mr. Herhold noted that a risk to the city’s industry prior to the economic slowdown was that developers were targeting the industry’s valuable waterfront marine properties for condo development instead of traditional marine uses and this risk will once again surface as the economy recovers unless. The industry is an economic engine that means ‘jobs, jobs, jobs!’
Doug Egan, President of Stiles Corporation, was the next panelist and spoke to a broader range of issues and questions that the City needs to address as it seeks economic development direction.
- Over the years, our city, community and neighbors have taken for granted all the great lifestyle and business climate advantages we have here in Fort Lauderdale, and inconjunction with aggressive competition from other cities to attract new businesses to their areas, our “golden goose has flown away”. So we need to ask ‘What do we need to do become more attractive?’
- Fort Lauderdale needs a ‘theme’ to build an identity that will help our tourism and create a special memory of Fort Lauderdale for visitors to take away and tell others about when they head home. Examples are cities like Chicago’s ‘The Windy City’, San Francisco’s ‘Golden Gate Bridge’ and New York’s ‘Big Apple’. To sell ourselves, we have to understand and promote our strengths. What’s special about our city? The urgency for doing this is that we’re only one year away from our 100th Anniversary and we don’t yet have a theme developed by our Centennial Committee…and we need a ‘theme’ soon so we’ll have something to work with.
- Encouraged by many of the permitting improvements the city’s made over the past year or so. But high on the list of other problems we need to address that affect economic development are real estate taxes that are based upon valuations that just too high…and this is battle we’re facing to attracting new businesses to relocate here.
- With tourism being so important to our economy, we also should be instituting a ‘Tourist Appreciation 101’ attitude for residents and promoting things for visitors to do that stretch beyond the beach. Specific suggestions include tasteful signage on the beach area promoting our cultural non-profits such as the Nova, Museum of Art, MODS, the Performing Arts Center, Bonnet House and the like.
- Finally, we need to clean up the appearance of the city, get rid of the ‘broken windows’ in the city and need to start with the public infrastructure. Mr. Egan passed around photos of utility spray painted streets, referring to the indecipherable spray paint marks as ‘utility terrorist graffiti’ being out of control and making the suggestion that utilities don’t spray paint anything until ready to work on it and clean it up when done. Where the DDA and city have spent millions of dollars on beautification and streetscaping throughout the city, we continually find utility spray paint marks ruining the appearance and we need to deal with it if we’re going to attract capital, business and people here.
Next up on the panel was Chris Pollock Christopher Pollock, VP Corporate Development for the Watermark Management Group, LLC/IAG Florida, Inc., making specific comments about tourism issues.
- We’ve taken tourists for granted…it’s 100,000 jobs and a couple billion in economic impact here. We’ve done a poor job of managing how the County dictates the tourism and what they get from bed taxes and need better coordination between the two. Encouraging developments include Commissioner Romney Rogers being named to the Tourist Development Council. We need to ask more questions of the County on how they’re handling that money;
- The beach hotels set up their own beach improvement district…they’ve taxed themselves to upgrade and clean up the beach, so they’ve stepped up. Now the city has to come to grips with owners of empty and dilapidated buildings and find a way to clean these up during a tough economic downturn;
- The bed tax is being used, among other things, for the BankAtlantic Center debt service out west and those funds don’t bring heads to beds in the city. We need a Convention Center hotel that will bring those heads in but questioned whether County should be in the hotel business;
- Airport expansion is critical to tourism to avoid even more delays…the most in the country in 2005 and after 20 years of working on it, that needs to be addressed;
- A Port Everglades access plan needs to be implemented soon to open Convention Center and make it easier for convention attendees to access it. It’s a problem in trying to bring conventions here;
- The Beach Renourishment program and Sand Bypass plan needs to be resolved and Fort Lauderdale’s beach renourishment for the middle part of beach has not come through as promised. Bed tax funds a part of this, too.
- Transportation to and around the beach and city is really a problem for tourists;
- The Swimming Hall of Fame brings tens of thousands of room nights with swim teams coming here and we’ve got to do something with the pools and Swimming Hall of Fame;
- Need more events on the beach;
- Parks and Recreation staff need a lot of training to be more friendly and they need some uniform standards as they look very unprofessional and act that way in a lot of situations. They should go through some Sunsational Training like the county makes its employees go through.
Dan Lindblad, President of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber addressed the Chamber’s view economic development issues with the city.
- Had met many roadblocks in the past of trying to make some things happen, but that was prior to recent new initiatives implemented by new Mayor and Council but positive developments and a plan is taking shape.
- Chamber decided it couldn’t wait…we want to be known as a ‘pro-business ‘ city and we want to attract new business to the city. New retention and expansion plan in partnership with the City will lead to holding high-level meetings with the CEOs of the top 50 businesses initially to gather information on what we need here. That will be followed in phase two by a survey of top 300 businesses to understand what issues are they facing and what other businesses and business owners they may know who might want to move here. Working with Broward Alliance right now to finalize a timeline for the plan and present it to the commission…$60,000 cost of first phase is not that expensive. Study will provide information and be given to institutions who need it and all are welcome to see the plan if interested… email firstname.lastname@example.org
RADressler: Echo many of the comments of others and with the new commission and mayor, this is good time for a ‘fresh look’ at what we’re doing…
Stan Eichelbaum was the final speaker and provided a wrap-up of the session with comments on the issues raised by prior speakers. Came here after a year-long review of relocation options personally and chose Fort Lauderdale because of it’s incredible potential.
First thing of concern, economic recovery may not come about as soon as 90% of economists are saying…this is a long term play and thinks 2011 is the first turnaround time possible. Adversity means opportunity, however, for those who know what’s going on and offered some observations from his personal experience with Fort Lauderdale.
1. Some great assets: Tourism…serviced by 3 discount airlines…and Spirit is providing Latin American access; Great inventory of three and four-star hotels here; Residential home prices have dropped dramatically making us an extremely attractive again as a relocation option; Office space is plentiful; Airport proximity is easier, faster and unlike anywhere else in America; At least 3 colleges here targeting career curriculums and integrated into the downtown, which is important to the development of downtown and that’s a growth opportunity; The Wave transportation system; and a multiethnic labor pool for global firms;
2: Some concerns: 3 growing blights…Riverfront, ICON & Las Olas need attention and addressing those will solidify the downtown and help get rid of disconnect between downtown areas now; Retailers having a rough time and uncertain futures for many; A ‘needs education focus’ for corporate sustainability…support college scholarship funding;
3: Some suggestions… utilize a Holistic model to research needs, i.e. take all city districts and all city functions into account in the economic model planning; competitive promotion of tourism and aggressive corporate relocation are essential; utilize and consider empty buildings as an asset rather than a problem…there’s affordable office space here; and finally, democracy is the best and worst system of government and we have to restructure and refine our disjointed legal system so that we can make progress much more quickly.
Moderator Mr. Dressler then invited several selected speakers from the audience to make comments on some other areas of economic importance to show variety of our advantages.
Mario Cartia spoke on Green Development: Said they’re starting to light at the end of the tunnel for economy and some things are becoming apparent to architects, who are an economic ‘bellwether’ group; one thing that is different is that ‘sustainable or green design’ is already here and is already mandated for government buildings, but it will also be in demand in the private sector as they can pay back the investment put into them.
Ina Lee spoke on the upcoming football bowl games: They’ll be a big boost to the tourism industry…Boat Show first, then the Pro Bowl here and then Super Bowl the following week and first time headquartered in Broward County…critically important is that the media will be broadcasting from the Convention Center will give us invaluable publicity…city and community, beach and downtown, have to all work together to make it happen…but the economic impact will be worth it.
David Hoskinson spoke on Health Care industry economic impact: Healthcare is 17% of GDP in the U.S.; Medical education is a pressing issue…on a local basis, we need Medical Education to produce Nurses, Doctors and ancillary providers as our current practitioners are aging and we need to replace them…and we just don’t have enough medical personnel in virtually every practice area. Nationally, the Health Insurance industry is facing a big change and many issues and going to see reform and more regulation…big question is will there be a national plan to compete against private industry. Will not be nationalizing or socializing…the question is whether it will be a national health plan or a private plan system…being debated now.
George Hanbury, former City Manager and now with Nova Southeastern University, was asked to comment on education’s economic impact; He recounted Nova Southeastern’s origins on Las Olas, it’s growth over the years and has now become an economic engine as well as an educational institution. Predominantly graduate students because businesses here wanted to keep employees here while they went on to get graduate degrees…but undergraduates are beginning to grow today. NSU is the third largest private employer in Broward County and $1.5 Billion economic impact in Broward County. Planned growth and new facilities and services attendant to that growth will add another $1 Billion impact over next few years…for a $2.5 billion impact total. Quality of life and competitive, affordable housing will result in new businesses and new residents for greater Fort Lauderdale area. Industries look for education, cultural activities and quality of life for all of their employees…and Fort Lauderdale has that, along with a beautiful beach and a wonderful downtown, are wonderful resources that others don’t have.
Forum Director and Moderator Mr. Dressler gave closing remarks and reminded that next Forum meeting will be Sept. 23rd discussing the issue of Police & Fire Pensions, and a very timely discussion to be had.