Tallahassee Chamber workshops highlight potential economic potential, peril

From the Tallahassee Democrat

AMELIA ISLAND — Unlike pre-pandemic years, workshops at this year’s Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Conference all took place in one large conference room – and an overflow room to control crowd size – rather than in breakout sessions.

The Chamber implemented several protocols to improve safety. By Saturday, about 440 participants were registered for the conference — a near 100-person drop from what was expected about three weeks ago.

Mask wearing was mandatory for all sessions for those not eating or drinking. However, while tables were spread beyond six feet with only four chairs per table, numerous participants were seen throughout the audience unmasked while seated — despite several mentions from healthcare panelists on the added protection they provide in reducing the spread and impact of COVID-19.

Each session touched on some of Tallahassee’s most pressing issues and spotlighted challenges, along with best practices to address them.

Here are four session highlights.

Early learning and education is everyone’s business

Brooke Brunner, director of early learning education at Leon County Schools, pointed to a glaring disparity. Only 43% of Title I School students from economically challenged areas come ready to learn. In non-Title I schools, there is a 76% kindergarten readiness rate.

Achievement gaps impacting Leon County students are worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists stressed the value of early childhood education and immediate intervention.

Kids books provided by the Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend were placed on tables. ELC Executive Director Liz Murphy said the agency may be known for giving out free books but said it’s more about “making a connection.”

She invited the audience to take a book and give it to a child to help foster a love of reading at an early age.

“That’s how we create our future learners,” Murphy said.

Panelists also discussed some of the next steps for the newly created Leon County Children’s Services Council, which hired former Florida United Way director Ted Granger as its interim administrator. The CSC plans to hire a permanent director.

In addition, the CSC has a contract out for bid for a company to execute the CSC’s needs assessment that will help determine how up to $8 million in property taxes will be used to help tackle children’s issues.

Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who sits on the CSC, said the needs assessment may begin before Christmas. By spring, he said the CSC may be in a position to look at programs to fund.

“I know first hand there is a significant need and a number of our children are not enrolled in Pre-K programs simply for financial reasons,” Hanna said. “They’re at home, and they are not learning.”

He said existing challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic as students went digital and struggled to make academic gains. The challenge ahead is finding ways to remediate lost skills and get them caught up.

“I’m very frightful that if this pandemic continues and we’re quarantined,” said Hanna, adding that more than 500 students in LCS were quarantined in the first week of school. “Kids in quarantine are not in school again.”

Talent 2030: Becoming Florida’s Talent Capital

Terrie Ard, president and COO at Moore, is leading the Chamber’s talent retention initiative. She said in order for Tallahassee to reach its goal of creating more than 17,000 jobs by 2030, the city needs the equivalent of 10 more Amazons coming to Tallahassee.

The world’s ecommerce giant this week announced its plans to build a robotics fulfillment center and 1,000 full-time jobs by late 2022.

The session ended with an appeal to all employers: Designate someone in your company who can act as a point person in developing a community wide talent strategy that will retool workforce opportunities for the future.

Magnetic Momentum 

The push continues to create a local economy surrounding magnetics and brand Tallahassee as the magnetic capitol of the world. The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University already boasts the largest and highest powered magnet laboratory around the globe.

Greg Beobinger, the Mag Lab’s director, said the facility is forging partnerships with businesses and finding problems in the private sector that FSU scientists can solve.

Beobinger said scientists are also working to develop a technique using magnetic scans that will make chemotherapy more effective.

“Research that is done right here in Tallahassee,” marveled Cristina Paredes, executive director for the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality.

Managing vaccines and COVID-19 in the workplace

Dr. Andrea Friall, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology and chief medical officer at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, provided suggestions on how to navigate vaccine discussions in the workplace.

Last month, Leon County was one of the first organizations in the country to mandate employees be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 or face termination. Some companies and organizations have adopted the same stance, while most have strongly encouraged vaccinations.

The workshop was meant to help employers in the room know what steps to take and what to avoid. Friall cautioned against asking too many questions that may land a business in legal trouble and encouraged businesses to consult with human resources.

The sessions began at the same time that Tallahassee hospitals continue to grapple with a taxing surge of mostly unvaccinated people. Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare is treating 88 patients, 7 of which are vaccinated. Capital Regional Medical Center is treating 92 patients.

Leon County administrator Vince Long, who recently required mandatory vaccines for the county workforce, noted the capital city has “lost 300 of our neighbors so far. That’s a little more than the people in this room right now.”

He also reported with sadness that the county lost its first employee this week to COVID – a 47-year-old.