Florida’s poorest zip code is in Tallahassee. For Chamber speaker, it’s a rallying cry

From the Tallahassee Democrat

As Tallahassee grows, pockets of the city continue to be plagued by poverty.

The 32304 zip code that runs from central Tallahassee into northwest Leon County has more residents living in poverty compared to any other zip code in the Sunshine State, according to Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson.

“Not Miami, Not Tampa. Nowhere. We own it,” Wilson said.

Wilson was the keynote speaker for the annual breakfast meeting hosted by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce.

During the breakfast meeting, Chamber leaders recapped the business organization’s work in the last year and looked ahead at top priorities.

In recent years, the Chamber has become more vocal about spotlighting community needs and challenges, including widespread poverty exposed by two Harvard University economists who used a range of data on communities nationwide to determine income mobility for children.

The 2015 findings, reported in the New York Times, said Leon County ranked among the worst counties in the United States in helping poor children move up on the income ladder. “It ranks 329th out of 2,478 counties, better than only 13 percent of counties,” the article stated.

It was a gut check to the capital city.

In response, the United Way of the Big Bend recently released its report on the “working poor” population, also known as Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed or ALICE. The report said 1 in 2 residents in the Big Bend area struggles to meet basic needs.

Wilson stressed how the private sector can make a significant difference in helping children read at grade level and excel later in school and in life, which feeds into the state’s workforce needs and priorities.

“We say talent lives here,” Wilson said. “But we want to put a focus on what can everyone in this room do at the school level, the zip code level and community level about our kids. We can change the trajectory of what’s going to happen in these kids’ lives.”

Chamber leaders stressed their commitment to continue with their efforts, even as their leadership changes.

Heidi Otway, president and partner at SalterMitchell PR and immediate past chairwoman of the Board of Directors, passed the gavel to Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare President and CEO Mark O’Bryant.

During his chairmanship, O’Bryant said he wants to continue the community focus on economic segregation and poverty through partnerships. He and others say diversifying the local economy could trigger a sweeping improvement for residents, particularly those living paycheck to paycheck.

“What we recognize is that if Tallahassee succeeds, it has to succeed as a whole. It can’t succeed in segments,” O’Bryant said. “We’re going to move away from the component attitude and recognize that as we move to the future, the workforce is key.”

In addition, the Chamber commissioned an independent study that examined consolidating some parts of local government. The report found consolidation could spur high levels of growth in employment, household income and gross domestic product, according to Chamber leaders. The report findings have yet to be released to the public.

Also during the breakfast meeting, the Chamber announced Greenville, S.C., will be the next city it visits to gather insights on how Tallahassee might grow its economy.

The Chamber researches cities before making a final decision on what city it will visit said Chamber President and CEO Sue Dick. Key factors include how other cities approach economic development, quality of life and key drivers that could make sense in Tallahassee.

“What we hope to expect from our trip to Greenville is looking at some of the economic development they’ve done specifically around the area of land development,” Dick said, including Greenville’s airport. “They have re-imagined who they could be for the future economy, and I think that’s where we continue to find ourselves as a community.”

Contact TaMaryn Waters at tlwaters@tallahassee.com or follow @TaMarynWaters on Twitter.