Chamber trip redux: How visits to thriving cities inspired Tallahassee innovation, efforts

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Nearly 20 years ago, Tallahassee’s top brass flew to Austin, Texas, roughly 13 hours and 870 miles away from Florida’s capital.

It was the first fact-finding mission organized by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, which hoped to showcase the economic potential of another capital city with college town roots.

Austin’s size dwarfed Tallahassee but to many on the trip it was cool, quirky and impressive. Back home, some critics wrote it off as a junket and misuse of public funds for elected officials who joined the trip. Others said it was unrealistic to think Tallahassee could — or would ever want to be — like Austin.

That city hasn’t stopped growing. In 2017, it ranked as the top most changed city in 10 years based on nine factors, including median age, commute times, building permits, income and housing prices, the Austin American-Statesman reported. It recently landed a lucrative expansion deal from Amazon, which will add 800 jobs.

Tallahassee Chamber and government officials say there’s value in observing other cities and bringing ideas back home. More trips followed over the years, each inspiring a new project or seed to boost employment.

The Tallahassee Democrat polled several officials on the eve of the latest Chamber trip to Greenville, South Carolina, on what they consider direct local benefits from past trips.


Austin, Texas 

Travel year: 2001

What we focused on: Site certification for economic development, downtown Sense of Place, prioritizing infrastructure investments and arts and culture.

What did Tallahassee get out of it?

Targeted Business Program — A city-county pilot program that offers certain tax and fee waivers up to 10 years based on certain criteria. More points are given for creating jobs, higher wages and sustainable building practices among other criteria.

In the last three years, the program was used for the relocation of Proof Brewing Coand two expansion projects at Danfoss Turbocor.

The program is an attractive incentive for qualified projects. Local officials say they’ve fielded queries from other cities and governments who want to duplicate the program in their backyards.

Raleigh, North Carolina

Travel year: 2002

What we focused on: University research, commercialization and tech transfer, centers of excellence and target industry clustering

What did Tallahassee get out of it?

Focus on Innovation Park — A stop at Centennial Park, a research park on the University of North Carolina campus, highlighted the need and importance of tapping into university-led innovation that could attract business. Former FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte and Research Vice President Ray Bye put more focus on maximizing FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory or “MagLab.”

Five years after the trip, Danfoss Turbocor Compressors moved its headquarters to Innovation Park.

The company has since expanded its Tallahassee footprint and is playing a key role in creating a magnet-focused campaign to attract more businesses interested in the MagLab and university-led research.

Madison, Wisconsin

Travel year: 2003

What we focused on: Downtown development, performing arts center, town & gown relations and talent retention.

What did Tallahassee get out of it?

Gaines Street Revitalization — Madison has State Street, a pedestrian-friendly stretch that’s a mere 12 minutes to walk or 4 minutes to bike. Its industrial past gave Madison officials inspiration to reduce the street from four lanes to two lanes, along with wide sidewalks. It was a direct path from Madison’s capitol to the University of Wisconsin campus.

When Tallahassee officials saw State Street, it was a light bulb moment — Gaines Street could be transformed in the same way. Early ideas were already floating about how to go about it, but State Street provided a visual.

Gaines Street is Tallahassee’s oldest and largest sense of place project, made possible by $27.7 million in Blueprint 2000 funds and an additional $7 million in state funds for infrastructure costs. Today, “G Street” is humming with shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars and high-rise student apartments representing more than $400 million in public investment and counting.

Boulder, Colorado

Travel year: 2015

What we focused on: Building startup communities, entrepreneurial accelerators, airport development and downtown entertainment hubs.

What did Tallahassee get out of it?

Creation of Magnetic Task Force — Florida State officials coordinated a stop to the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences to learn about connecting the university assets to the business world.

Talks began percolating, once again, about how Tallahassee could use and market the MagLab.

Many business and university officials say the MagLab creates cutting-edge research that companies incorporate into products now and in the future. An economic ecosystem centered around magnets is being cultivated and nudged with the creation of a Magnetic Task Force and the hiring of a business development manager at the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality.

In October, OEV launched the Magnetic Capital of the World Campaign, a marketing push to target businesses that may be interested in the MagLab and possibly relocating operations to Tallahassee.