Chamber eyes Greenville for ideas on getting the biggest bang for Blueprint bucks

From the Tallahassee Democrat

This week’s trip to Greenville, South Carolina, was timed to drum up ideas on how to maximize millions in Blueprint sales tax funds that will begin to surface next year.

Tallahassee business leaders and officials think they can learn something from Greenville’s come-back story.

Once dubbed the “Textile Capital of the World,” Greenville was knocked to its knees when companies outsourced operations overseas and left mills and factories in ruin. Thousands fled the city. Unemployment spread like a plague.

Then, Greenville snagged BMW’s first full manufacturing plant built outside of Germany, and its growing manufacturing industry has replaced the city’s tattered textile past.

Twenty five years and 66,000 auto-related employees later, the city is reaping the rewards of the BMW effect, as described by Greenville Business Magazine.

Tallahassee wants to duplicate its own version of Greenville’s success. Local officials are curious how to maximize its targeted industries and about three-quarters of a billion dollars in Blueprint money trickling in next year.

A Blueprint for the future

Extended by voters through 2039, the 1-percent Blueprint sales tax will generate an estimated $756 million pot for 27 infrastructure projects. On top of that is an allocation of 12 percent of the tax proceeds — some $5 million a year — for economic development, which could mean nearly anything.

The three-day tour organized by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, which begins today, is a brainstorming session for decision-makers capable of swaying Tallahassee’s economy.

Large private-sector developments, such as the Cascades Project and Washington Square in downtown Tallahassee, are motivating officials to ask, “What’s next?”

“We are seeing wise, intentional public investments in our community generating substantial private sector investments in the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars in new developments,” said Ben Pingree, director of city/county Planning, Land Management & Community Enhancement.

In the early 2000s, previous Chamber-sponsored trips attracted local business, university and government officials to cities like Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin. A 12-year hiatus followed and trips returned in 2015 when locals traveled to Boulder, Colorado, and Nashville, Tennessee, in 2017.

“After three consecutive years hosting tremendous trips to Austin, Raleigh, and Madison, we decided to shift from a focus on inspiration to a focus on execution,” Chamber President and CEO Sue Dick said. “The decade following those trips was one of the most important in our community’s history. Projects like Gaines Street, Cascades Park, CollegeTown, bringing Danfoss Turbocor Compressors to town, and numerous other developments came online during that time.”

Dick said the Chamber’s decision to revive the inter-city trips is driven by the extension of the Blueprint tax. She said Tallahassee is becoming a hub for entrepreneurship, which can drive more talent to Florida’s capital.

Tallahassee needs to build on the momentum taking place, Dick said.

“With our bicentennial only a few years away, we need to begin planning for our next century,” she added. “A key strategy for that is to visit cities that have found their strategic advantages and now use them as a way to grow.”

Trip takeaways

The Chamber trips have sparked more concentrated efforts, such as resources to improve high-speed internet at Domi Station. However, other trips have sparked innovation, too.

A trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, was organized by Dave Ramsay, who retired as chairman, president and CEO of SunTrust Bank. He’s currently chairman of the Leon County Research and Development Authority that manages Innovation Park.

Leon County Administrator Vince Long was among the group. In 2007, Chattanooga was grappling with its own host of issues, including a flood of permit-related complaints.

Chattanooga’s response was to build a Development Resource Center in its downtown where both city and county departments were under one roof. It saved developers time from having to trek across town for documents from various departments to push a project forward.

That trip created a visual, Long said, of what a one-stop resources for growth management needs could look like in Tallahassee.

Soon after, the city and county purchased the Renaissance Center in Frenchtown, which houses growth management for the city and county and other departments. The trip also led to the creation of the DesignWorks Studio, an in-house consultation arm within the Planning Department.

Last year, the DesignWorks Studio conducted 145 consultations, averaging between 12 and 15 per month. Long said the studio is “part of the development team and for lack of a better term a free consultant to developers but you’re also achieving your purposes because you’re achieving the highest standards possible for development for your community.”

“It’s the carrot and not the stick approach,” he said, adding it was a “dream to a developer.”

“To me — and I’m a nerd on this — that’s the sexiest thing you can have because it was sort of inconceivable to think we would do that prior to seeing it in Chattanooga and seeing it work,” Long said. “And when we came back, everyone was really excited about it.”

The group going to Greenville will include a mix of officials and business leaders who’ve been on previous trips and first-timers.

On Monday, the group will tour Greenville’s downtown, Fluor Field, a Minor League baseball facility, and participate in panel discussions. Tuesday’s itinerary includes a visit to Greenville/Spartanburg Airport, Greenville ONE Center and a facility that’s Greenville’s version of Innovation Park. The trip will conclude with a morning wrap-up session Wednesday.

Terrie Ard, president and COO of Moore Communications, a veteran of previous trips, said they’re worthwhile because they offer a higher level of engagement with community leaders who are passionate about advancing Tallahassee.

“The community trip is research,” she said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to treat our community like a Fortune 500 business, where success is a result of keeping a pulse on the national landscape and driving innovation. That is exactly what this trip is, one prong of important research.”