Will The Opportunity Be Realized?
My 40+ year career in communications has been anchored in the Washington, DC, region, and more specifically in Northern Virginia. About four years ago, I began spending winters in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. What began as a three-month stint in Florida to escape winter has gradually evolved into a full-time love affair not only with the weather, but the lifestyle here. Recently, upon the conclusion of my non-compete agreement with the DC-based communications firm I co-founded and in which I sold my interests, I began to take a look at this area with more of a business orientation. What I discovered surprised me.
Florida (particularly South Florida including Palm Beach and Broward Counties) today is not on the verge of an economic development boom. But it is on the verge of being on the verge of a boom. There is an important distinction. When you are on the verge of a boom things start moving like a ball rolling downhill and all you have to do is manage its direction and pace and otherwise get out of the way. On the other hand, when you are at the verge of being on the verge of a boom, it’s more akin to pushing the ball uphill to get to the point where everything can happen on its own momentum. That’s no easy chore, nor a sure-to-happen goal.
I saw the same situation about three-decades or so ago when Northern Virginia was transformed from being a bedroom community to Washington, DC. Each day the vast percentage of Northern Virginians commuted across the Potomac to the Federal Triangle to work for the US government. Today, it is one of the global centers of gravity for the IT industry, and more people drive to Northern Virginia locations for their jobs than commute out of it. Despite the failure of the various local governments to develop regional infrastructure solutions to deal with what has become an almost intolerable traffic, jobs have been created, a great school system has been built, cultural opportunities abound, and residents enjoy a great quality of life.
The heart of Northern Virginia’s growth, Fairfax County, currently enjoys a four percent unemployment rate. Florida residents would probably be glad to deal with some of the downsides of growth if they could reach that level of employment.
According to the most recent jobs data (3/13/12), unemployment statewide in Florida was 9.6 percent in January 2012; in Broward County it was 8.3 percent; in Miami-Dade it was 10.3 percent.
Stephen Fuller, Ph.D., of George Mason University, has studied the growth of the Northern Virginia area, which can be reviewed in this report updated in November 2011, which includes the following information:
“Over the 1980-2010 period, Northern Virginia’s population (and households) more than doubled and its employment base increased by 162.3 percent….
“From 1980 to 2010, the value of goods and services produced in Northern Virginia, its GRP, grew from $41.8 billion to $188.6 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars for a real gain of 351 percent.”
How did Northern Virginia transition from being on the verge of being on the verge of a boom to actually booming? And are there any lessons for Florida?
There were a number of assets that Northern Virginia used quite consciously to manage that transition. I do not think any of these was a magic bullet by itself. However, here are five components that proved to be absolutely essential, and in italics are my observations about how they compare to what I have thus far observed in Florida at this time:
- The success of George Mason University was central to the growth of the region, just as the success of the region was central to the growth of GMU. Most importantly, both the administration of the university and the leaders of the business community invested their time and money consistent with a strong unwavering commitment to maximize that synergy. There is no single college or university that appears to have captured the imagination and support of the state’s (or even a region’s) business community. Could there be some sort of consortium that would coalesce supporters from around the state to support programs in a rationally coordinated way, eliminating duplications of efforts when it comes to raising money and maximizing clout to lobby on political policy issues (e.g., budget cuts and tuition policies)?
- An infrastructure of support systems started to emerge. This included organizations such as The Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC), which offered a forum for tech companies to form into a community, and Mid-Atlantic Venture Association (MAVA), which promoted entrepreneurialism and helped build capital availability, and the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA) which took a very aggressive role in economic development efforts. In Florida, BioFlorida is playing a similar role with biotech and biomedicine companies as NVTC did with IT companies; Florida Venture Forum is aggressively building the interest and support of the financial community necessary to invest in local entrepreneurs, assuming a role similar to MAVA; and The Business Development Board (BDB) of Palm Beach County, is playing a role similar to the FCEDA, as for example its recent multi-day tour for site selection experts who help organizations decide where to relocate or expand. There are more comparisons. Of course, the current budgets of the Florida organizations are far less than those of their Northern Virginia equivalents, but all organizations start out under-capitalized and under-resourced. Florida can learn a lesson from Northern Virginia by observing how they made events assume greater importance and produce greater consequences: the key to success was that there was no pride of authorship or “ownership.” For example, the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology was held at GMU, but it was supported by numerous organizations that “competed” with each other for membership, money and power. The basic premise was a no-brainer: a rising tide lifts all ships. On the other hand, The World Stem Cell Summit will be held in West Palm Beach in December 2012 – it will be an incredible time for all sorts of organizations to collaborate on maximizing that conference for all their shared vested interests. Will that happen? Similarly, on April 16-17, 2012, the International Economic Forum of the Americas will be conducting their Palm Beach Strategic Forum – what a great audience of influence shapers that will be! What a great opportunity for numerous organizations to overcome their budget and resource limitations by working together to exploit that opportunity! Will it happen?
- Northern Virginia was able to articulate and promote a single “story” – an aspirational vision of what could be. It was simple to articulate and understand: “we can become the global center of the IT industry.” That vision of a clean and growing industry was presented and shared and bought-into by the business community, academia, politicians and activists of all types. There was no cross-messaging. Everyone could “stay on point” because everyone knew what “point” was. Florida has numerous stories, but no single theme. The various geographical segments of Florida seem to have their own set of messages. But nowhere do I see a strong, exciting vision that is easy to understand and that mobilizes people. In the Palm Beach area, the prospect for emerging as an important biotech/bio-medicine center is close to attaining that critical mass of believability and support.
- Northern Virginia exploited the presence of the US government and the benefits of being close to it. The first really major salvo for the Fairfax County Economic Development marketing campaign was a full-page ad in the NY Times (see it at the top of this page) that showed the Capitol of the US and a headline that told a very simple message: “we are close to that.” Florida does not have the US Capitol, but it does have a unique quality of life, as I have observed personally both in weather and lifestyle. I am reminded of when I used to host investment analysts who visited Planning Research Corp., a NYSE IT company where I worked (subsequently acquired). At the end of the day, when walking the analyst out of the building, through our large atrium lobby and massive revolving doors, the analyst would invariably say: “So this is the door your assets walk out every day.” They understood that in a Knowledge Industry business, human assets rather than fixed assets (property, plant and equipment) are most important. Florida promotes the weather and lifestyle to attract tourists. Duh! It should also be used – big time – to attract companies whose employees would love to live here (especially combined with the opportunity to use the numerous universities here to further their own education).
- A group of leaders emerged in the Northern Virginia area that would always step-up to support efforts that would lift the tide that would lift all ships. There wasn’t one leader from each segment (not just one home-builder, or one tech company, or one law firm, etc.), but day-to-day competitors who worked cooperatively in pursuit of regional growth. And they didn’t merely talk-the-talk. They were there when the rubber met the road: when it was time to write a check, lend an employee to make an event happen, call a politician, etc. I still have a lot of people to meet and a lot to learn, but at first blush, there aren’t one, two, three names that always pop-up as the people who make things happen in Florida. In Northern Virginia, you could present a bold idea to the right people at breakfast and by the end of the day that idea would be moving towards execution (with an appropriate budget and resources committed). Without similar leadership, Florida (and regions of Florida) will continue to push the ball up the hill and will never get past being on the verge of being on the verge.
My naiveté about this region may well be showing through in what I have written and what I have observed thus far. If so, I am very anxious to be corrected.