Candidates Mostly Agree on City's Economic Development; More Jobs, Incentives Are Hot-Button Issues

Article excerpt

Byline: David DeCamp, Times-Union staff writer

If there's something that fits this spring mayoral election to a T, it's the issue of economic development.

In a campaign of consensus, the major candidates' plans for bringing jobs and investment to Jacksonville have few differences, too.

Jobs? They want them.

Incentives? They accept them.

Workforce development? They push it.

Nobody threatens a lot of change, and a big reason is Jacksonville's economy, experts say. The local economy has slowed compared with recent years, and war and national trends might not help. But most indicators show the city fared better than the rest of the nation. Unemployment is below the country's average, and economists say the city's economy could rise again next year.

"I think most of the candidates are pro-business and pro-job growth. I think again part of that is a reflection of the economic times we're in now," said Henry Thomas, who keeps an eye on local politics as chairman of the political science and public administration department at the University of North Florida.

"There is some uncertainty as to what the future holds. People want as strong an economic position as they can."

The mayor is often a sort of cheerleader when it comes to enticing new jobs. Rarely does the mayor get involved in the mathematics of an incentive package, but the mayor often is brought in to convince a company of the city's interest.

For example, Craig/is, an insurance services provider, decided to bring its headquarters and 200 jobs here in 2001. Chamber executive vice president Jerry Mallot, who leads its economic development efforts, credits Mayor John Delaney's salesmanship with convincing the company to arrive.

The candidates say the city should seek the kinds of industries with higher-paying jobs that the Chamber of Commerce wants, and lobby to protect military sites from closure. They want more business headquarters, manufacturers, medical and high-tech companies, seaport trade, distributors and aerospace corporations, particularly at Cecil Commerce Center. A consultant identified those industries for the chamber in a report nine months ago.

What they do not want to recruit, by and large, are more lower-wage call centers, where employees handle service questions and orders. The candidates say the jobs are too easy to move.

No schism there, however.

"In our mind, we've already made that change," Mallot said. "We stopped recruiting call centers. We focus on targets that are high-wage oriented and a great fit for economy and have a high potential growth."

The candidates also want to improve the workforce with broad-but-vague plans to partner with local schools, vocational colleges and four-year schools. Workforce development has become a key cog in another issue, improving local education.

The issue with the most sparks this campaign has been where to allow incentives. Everybody but Democrat Nat Glover wants to be able to use them on a case-by-case basis on the Southside, particularly in areas along Philips Highway that could use help. Projects in high-growth areas such as Butler Boulevard might be tough sells. But Glover said he wants the incentives to continue to be focused on redevelopment of the city's north and west sides.

"There are a lot of complexities involved in that," Thomas said. "At the simplest level you could create a situation in which your incentive structure begins to compound other problems you're having on the Southside. For example, overly incentivizing the Southside can create some transportation problems that might have been otherwise avoided."

There's little change expected at the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, which Delaney formed in 1996 to coordinate City Hall's efforts to attract investment. It's the mayor's biggest way to influence economic development. …

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