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Tallahassee thinks about city-county consolidation


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8 March 04

One community, two governments

Would consolidation mean more jobs?

Since Tallahassee's inception 180 years ago, its reason for being was government. The city's status as a state capital has been a stabilizing economic influence, keeping unemployment low and wages steady, if modest.

When the economy soars, communities that are more entrepreneurial than ours ride the bull. When the economy sours or industries become obsolete, jobs in those places disappear. Florida's capital has been largely insulated from dramatic swings in the national economy.

Moderate employment growth here is projected through 2015 (see graphic). But government downsizing and outsourcing, combined with reductions in federal and state support for cities and counties, have created a keener sense of urgency about new jobs for future residents and those already here but underemployed.

Local efforts to create more private-sector jobs, particularly in technology or other well-paying fields, aren't new, though none has paid big dividends. We're not in a state of economic emergency yet, but citizens like Valerie Stanley sense that diversifying Leon County's job base is what will save the community from mediocrity. Public services and performing arts centers don't pay for themselves.

Success will require finding and creating even small advantages --- such as landing a new company with 100 well-paying jobs or persuading an existing business to stay put.

Stanley, a 38-year-old city employee who grew up here, doesn't know whether consolidating city and county governments would help. But she believes local government and business leaders must be better partners.

"Tallahassee is a great place to raise a family," says the mother of two sons, ages 11 and 14. "We've managed to grow and still be neighborly. But I don't want us to be stagnant.

"I would just love the young minds coming out of our colleges to stay here. Why can't we have a few Fortune 500 companies? When is it going to be our turn?"

Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce President Sue Dick echoes the concern, saying that while Tallahassee is more frequently getting the "look-at" by major companies, it gets passed over more often than not.

The city and county share similar economic development goals, she says, but reasons for job creation disappointments range from persistent scuttlebutt about government red tape to a lack of cultural pizazz that young, creative employees seek in a place to live and work.

The upshot: Our community has the elements of greatness needed for healthy economic expansion, but it hasn't figured out how to pull them all together.

The question is whether consolidating city and county governments could be a binding thread.

What's the connection?

Proponents often cite economic development as a primary reason to consolidate.

Political leaders in such places as Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., say their community's economic successes would have been unlikely without consolidation.

"We were always pulling back and forth, between the city and county," Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. "Now, we have one agenda, one clear vision, rather than two people who feel like they are both in charge of the same community."

Part of consolidation's appeal is perception. Louisville officials believe that unification --- which voters approved in 2000 and was implemented in 2003 --- helped attract investment. New development includes a hotel and convention center, a waterfront condominium, and an entertainment complex.

Perception may also be at play in another important way. Even though customer and work-force bases aren't determined by political boundaries, statistics often are. So when city and county governments merge, the population appears to grow.

Louisville went from a city of 256,000 to a metropolitan area of almost 700,000, immediately jumping from being the 65th largest U.S. municipality to the 16th. While critics say this is smoke and mirrors, corporate scouts often don't look beyond such numbers.

More than 36 percent of Leon County's 250,000 residents now live outside the Tallahassee city limits. That is expected to rise to 38.3 percent in 25 years, when the countywide population will be about 350,000.

Consolidation "would make Tallahassee immediately comparable to the largest cities of this state," says Lance deHaven-Smith, a Florida State University public administration professor.

"It would increase the visibility of this community. . . . Right now, Tallahassee is viewed, and I think views itself, as a small town. It's not a place on the make; it's a place fighting change."

Part of that self-concept may stem from Tallahassee's perceived lack of entrepreneurial spirit. Moreover, the relationship between local government and the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce became a close partnership only within the past few years. Finally, the absence of a large corporate community here may reduce our attractiveness to new investors.

When Michael Parker worked for the city of Fort Lauderdale in the mid '90s, corporate prospects were flown to potential sites on business tycoon Wayne Huizenga's private helicopter. Now Tallahassee's economic development director, Parker says there is more going on here than meets the eye, but "you have to work at (finding) it."

Efforts include a city-county business incentive program designed to spur job growth; a 20-square-mile county enterprise zone that gives financial breaks to businesses in the district; the Southern Strategy, to attract commercial and residential development to the south side; and several other local and state programs offered by local government and its chief job creation partner, the Economic Development Council.

Still, there is little that job creation champions can do when company reps see a less than vigorous commercial district downtown or read newspaper headlines about the city-county feud over downtown redevelopment.

Jim Hunt, president of ElectroNet, moved his Internet service provider from downtown to Capital Medical Boulevard four years ago.

"I thought I'd miss downtown, but I found out there was nothing to miss," says Hunt, a Chamber executive committee member. "If local business people feel that way, how do we attract new businesses down there?"

Or, for that matter, anywhere in Leon County. The University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research projected that job growth through 2015 in Leon and other counties with large state government employment sectors would be slower than the statewide average.

In addition, many communities offer as much or more as Tallahassee in financial incentives, cultural life and other amenities. In an era of intense intercity competition for new jobs, they can be the difference between landing a Fortune 500 company and being a rejected suitor.

But if merging local governments automatically meant more jobs and higher wages, more than a few dozen U.S. communities presumably would have jumped on the bandwagon.

FSU public administration professor Richard Feiock has spent years studying unified governments, focusing on economic development. His conclusion: No discernible relationship exists between consolidation and the local economy.

Cities like Jacksonville and Indianapolis already were on the right track before they merged, Feiock says. And, he points out, many successful cities aren't consolidated.

Last year researchers at the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also reported little correlation between communities' structure of local government and their economic condition.

Where does that leave us?

Job creation advocates say the local job market could be invigorated by pulling together assets such as our environment, intellectual capital and university institutions like the Mag Lab and FSU's medical school. Now each tends to stand alone.

Moreover, the loss of almost 1,000 full-time state agency jobs from 2000 to 2003 was blunted by new university jobs that paid better, Chamber officials say. They don't expect that rate of job growth in higher education to continue.

Internet entrepreneur Ed Deaton believes that more emphasis should be on promoting small- and medium-sized businesses, particularly ones already here that are forward-looking and information-based.

"The scale is wrong and the focus is wrong," he says. "The scale is too big and the focus is on the out-of-towners . . . and is not encouraging the kind of sunrise industries that will continue to create jobs in the future."

Some believe a single, streamlined, more accountable local government would be an extra tool in the community's job creation toolbox.

Deaton, who opposed the 1992 consolidation charter, thinks unification could help, if done right.

Yet Hunt, who's also chairman of the Tallahassee Technology Alliance, thinks it is unrealistic to expect to spur job creation without seeking lots of outside investment.

"If we're dependent on the local base, there is only so much you can grow," he says, persuaded that consolidation would aid local marketing efforts by eliminating turf battles. "I don't think we can promote this region the best that we can to attract new opportunities if we don't have a united voice."

Valerie Stanley, whose best friend moved to Jacksonville 10 years ago for a job, wants her hometown to have a bigger job base so her sons could find work here if they want to stay.

"I'm all for the trees," she says, "but why can't we have corporate America here too?"

If consolidation proponents could make a convincing case that merging city and county governments would sharpen Tallahassee's competitive edge, they'd win more people like her to their cause.

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