Putting on the Ritz: A rundown of what will dominate talk at Tallahassee Chamber Conference

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Business leaders and public officials will seize the opportunity to reach a captive audience this weekend at the annual Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island.

“We’re very cognizant of trying to be an organization that hosts incredibly important conversations about our future,” said Jay Revell, the Chamber’s vice president. “The timing is good to talk about the future of our community.”

The sold-out event will be just as much about what’s not said as what’s said — openly at least.

There’s fodder to debate on Tallahassee’s economic outlook, which appears largely stable and showing pockets of improvement. However, sidebar conversations are all but guaranteed considering the ceaseless headlines on crime, corruption and a high rise project that hangs in the balance.

Here’s a look at what’s likely to be talked about.

The on-the-agenda topics

More jobs

Overall employment is on the upswing in the capital city, with some sectors performing better than others.

The five-year trend shows roughly 15,300 jobs have been added to Tallahassee’s Metropolitan Statistical Area since 2014, the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality reports. Leon County’s low unemployment rate (3.5 percent in July) also puts Tallahassee in a favorable position.

The Tallahassee MSA had the second fastest annual job growth rate compared to all metro areas in Florida in professional and business services in July, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Economic growth, hiring and jobs will be a key focus of keynote speakers and breakout sessions in between beach breaks.

Saturday morning’s keynote speaker is Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company — a massive, publicly traded energy company in Atlanta that serves 9 million customers. He’ll touch on the importance of utilities and their role in spurring economic development and jobs.

Local CEOs will also share their tips in panel discussions on managing growth, leadership and driving the bottom line, while superintendent Rocky Hanna and School Board chair Rosanne Wood discuss how businesses can help the district ensure students graduate from high school “future ready.”

Growing sectors

Health and applied sciences; leisure and hospitality; and professional and businesses services are the area’s fastest growing industries, OEV’s director Cristina Paredes said.

The state’s latest job report shows 1,400 jobs in professional and business services (earning an average annual salary of $59,432) were added in the Tallahassee MSA since last year, followed by education and health services with 900 jobs.

Manufacturing continues to lag, with only 100 jobs added in the last year. Economic experts and and business leaders say the manufacturing sector could get a boost with efforts to brand Tallahassee as the “Magnetic Capital of the World.”

It hinges on research and innovation coming out of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory – the MagLab – at Florida State University. It’s a scientific marvel, where researchers from around the world are drawn to Tallahassee by one of the strongest magnets known to man —  a researcher’s dream.

Or possibly a launching pad for new business. Magnets touch every aspect of daily life, from cellphones to vacuum cleaners to airplanes.

A growing number of local business and government leaders believe the MagLab is Tallahassee’s best shot at attracting magnetic technology companies that manufacture the products that American consumers demand.

The MagLab is sure to come up in a panel discussion entitled “Local Economic Progress: Vitality You Didn’t Know About,” in which retired IBM executive Steve Evans takes a panel of research, economic and tourism leaders through the unique assets that make Tallahassee a “dynamic and innovative environment where businesses thrive.”

The Sunshine State’s newest thriving industry of a medical marijuana is also getting its own spotlight.

Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers will lead a panel discussion on the future of the industry, hemp regulations and potential legislation in a session titled “Cannabis in the Capital City.” Trulieve, a Tallahassee-based medical marijuana provider that was first to open a dispensary in the state, became the first provider to sell smokable medical marijuana in Florida.

Robust development

From residential to mixed-use projects, there are dozens of developments that will reshape Tallahassee’s skyline once they are complete.

One of them is the Cascades Project, the largest mixed-use redevelopment, which will transform two city blocks with an AC Hotel by Marriott, retail and commercial space, brownstones, a plaza and more next door to Cascades Park.

Canopy at Welaunee presses on to create the largest concentration of homesin Tallahassee’s next growth chapter. Located on the western toe of the Welaunee development, east of Fleischmann Road between Centerville and Miccosukee roads, it calls for 850 to 1,000 new homes and an entire community all its own.

Once complete, the development is projected to have a $1 billion economic impact on Tallahassee.

Approved projects represent more than 8,890 acres, 10,580 dwelling units and 5.3 million square feet, according to the Planning Land Management and Community Enhancement or PLACE.

Twenty-five completed projects in 2018 and 2019 represent roughly 1,710 beds and more than 529,310 commercial square feet. Some of those projects include CMX Cinemas Fallschase, Casanas Village in Frenchtown and the Ballard Building downtown.

A workshop Saturday on the housing market will offer attendees insights into the growth in new construction and understanding of the current state of the market.

The conference will be capped off Sunday by commercial real estate broker Ed Murray’s much-anticipated discussion on development trends and what projects are on the horizon — an event so popular the Chamber decided in recent years to set it as the climax of the weekend.

Crime and solutions

Despite an overall decline last year in offenses, Leon County continues to maintain a cringe-worthy distinction of having the highest crime rate in Florida for the fifth consecutive year.

A high crime rate isn’t good for business. It’s one of the reasons city and county leaders are considering putting a Children’s Services Council and tax before voters in 2020. The Children’s Services Council would create a raft of services that invest in children and families early on and address critical needs in a city struggling with poverty and hunger.

A break-out session Saturday brings the proposal to the the forefront. The council, if approved by voters, would designate a dedicated pot of tax-payer money that could have a long-term impact on a range of issues, including crime.

The cocktail conversation

FBI investigation

The investigation is ongoing, and Tallahassee is talking.

For the last two years, the investigation has been a looming dark cloud. Many business leaders acknowledge the federal probe but are eager to push forward.

Revell likened the issue to the frequent afternoon showers Tallahassee’s summers are prone to.

“There’s this point in time where the rain has come and dumped. It’s now bright again outside, but there’s still some steam coming off the asphalt. That’s kind of what it feels like,” he said. “It could rain again, but it isn’t raining right now. And right now, we have to get back to work.”

Chamber President and CEO Sue Dick chimed in and said, “We can’t control when it’s going to rain.”

Washington Square

Is the city of Tallahassee “anti business” as described by Washington Square developer Ken McDermott in court this week? Or is the city being wrongly blamed while simply protecting its land asset and the interest of taxpayers?

The debate-turned lawsuit between the two parties is a head-scratcher. Neither side appears happy and the stalled $150-million high-rise, where Loews Hotel was expected to operate, is showing no signs of life.

In fact, the developer’s attorney, Michael Gay, said the project is on “life support.” Both sides disagree on a range of issues, including the interpretation of terms in a perpetual easement agreement.

Fairmont Tallahassee, one of at least two companies backing the project, is suing the city for an unspecified amount in damages. It says it has easement rights to the land the city-owned Eastside Garage sits on. The government contends the agreement applies to the first floor of the parking facility.

Things get murky when it comes to the future of the garage and if it’s razed after the lease expires in 2025. The garage requires substantial repairs and could be torn down.

Observers says this situation between the city and Fairmont is unusual and these issues are often worked out before constructions begin and lawyers are hired. Many are eager to see who will prevail in this case set for a ruling on Aug. 21.


When this group of Who’s Who gathers, there’s no getting around politics.

It’s just not on the agenda. Last year, Leon County Commissioner Bryan Desloge timed an announcement with the annual conference that he was considering a run for Sen. Bill Montford’s seat .

The District 4 commissioner, the sole Republican elected to a local government seat, said he weighed his options for almost a year. He opted instead to stay at the local level rather than challenge Rep. Loranne Ausley for the seat.

With the 2020 general election around the corner and controversial issues ahead, there’s bound to be behind-the-scenes jockeying and plenty of speculation of who in Amelia Island might appear on the ballot. Stay tuned.