High-Tech Isn't City's Strong Suit Jacksonville Has a Robust Economy, but a New Study Ranks the City 48th out of 50 Metropolitan Areas in Elements of a High-Tech Economy

Article excerpt

Byline: David Bauerlein, Times-Union staff writer

********** CORRECTION June 22, 2001

Cheryl Schmidt is a professor at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, Because of an editor's error, her job affiliation was incorrect in a photo caption on Page A-1 yesterday.

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As cities such as San Francisco and Miami zoom along the high-tech highway in sleek sports cars, several studies suggest Jacksonville is still chugging up the on-ramp in its grandfather's sedan.

Despite rapid job growth, Jacksonville remains at the back when it comes to the high-tech revolution, according to a recent Progressive Policy Institute report that ranked the metropolitan area 48th out of 50.

In a similar finding, this year's Forbes-Milken Institute Best Places Ranking put Jacksonville 94th out of 200 metropolitan areas for businesses and careers -- and 190th for high-tech growth.

Without high-tech jobs, metropolitan areas will find it hard to sustain strong economic times, particularly in attracting high-paying jobs, said Skip Rimer, director of communications for the Milken Institute.

"Our economists say if you don't have high-tech, your chances of keeping up in the 21st century are not nearly as good as if you have high-tech," Rimer said. "For the most part, we've found that high-tech is a major factor in how regions grow."

City officials acknowledge that to compete in the high-tech world, Jacksonville needs to focus more intensely on what makes cities attractive to high-tech businesses. That includes building a high-tech infrastructure, improving schools from kindergarten through advanced degrees and university-based research and improving the quality-of-life factors that attract workers in high-tech fields.

On the plus side, officials point to The Better Jacksonville Plan's road construction -- and the possibility of laying high-speed cable along those roads -- as a potential catalyst for changes that will help make the city a cyberplayer.

"Once the Internet became available, it's been a wildfire and I think that tells us that it's something different -- we're in a different revolution than we've ever been in before," City Council President Alberta Hipps said.

Any time technology changes so rapidly, "there are going to be winners and losers in the race," Hipps said. "I want to make sure we're on the winning side."

WHERE JACKSONVILLE LAGS

In its latest report, the Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Policy Institute looked at five primary issues -- "knowledge" jobs, globalization, economic dynamism, the digital economy and innovation capacity -- to compile its Metropolitan New Economy Index. The index rated the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas.

Overall, Jacksonville was 48th; only San Antonio, Texas, and Grand Rapids, Mich., were rated lower.

There were some bright points. Jacksonville was in the top third in the number of companies with annual sales revenue growth of 20 percent or more for four straight years and the top half for the number of new businesses vs. business failures.

But despite overall job growth, the institute's summary said Jacksonville is one of the places "most firmly rooted in the old economy."

When the former American Electric Association and NASDAQ released a report in December that dubbed 60 metropolitan areas as cybercities, Jacksonville wasn't on the list because its high-tech sector wasn't large enough to meet the criteria for minimum number of jobs.

Jerry Mallot, executive vice president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, said Jacksonville isn't a maker of high-tech equipment but the city is experiencing job growth in high-tech services.

"There are more jobs being created there, and many of them are higher paying than jobs in the manufacturing process itself," he said.

Besides overall job growth, the Progressive Policy Institute found Jacksonville scores best in its potential to be a power player. …