Published Feb. 3, 2011

TWISler Update: The real deal with the DEAL

Alrighty folks, the TWISler has some good news and some bad news for ya. The bad news is in last week’s Breakdown of the Design and Economic Acceleration Lab, aka the “DEAL,” we didn’t exactly frame the whole concept behind the project with perfect accuracy. The good news is that’s because none of the other local news sources managed to get it right either. But it’s understandable, seeing as how at the January 18 press conference Lars Hafner, president of the State College of Florida, said the DEAL would be a “new educational model housing all the agencies essential to the economic development equation.” Apparently, the plan is not to relocate all the economic development entities in Sarasota and Manatee Counties to Lakewood Ranch, only to provide an arena where all those groups can join forces and tag team businesses that are interested in moving to the area, while having all the resources and information they might need right there at their fingertips.

After talking out the project details with Rex Jensen, CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR), we’ve come to the realization that the DEAL is basically the product of a developer, a college and a foundation coming together and saying, “If these two counties aren’t going to work together to make some big shit happen, we’re gonna do it for ’em. Jensen says he’s had it up to his highbrows with seeing business come down to Lakewood Ranch, look around, love the digs, and then after making the rounds to North Port, Venice, Sarasota and Bradenton, realize how dysfunctional our little Suncoast family really is, and are out the door before we can say, “Help us, Dr. Phil.” And who could blame them? With the cross-county backstabbing we’ve engaged in over the years, they probably feel like they’ve landed in the middle of a Jerry Springer-style inbred love triangle cat fight. So, the DEAL is a way to show companies that we all play nice.

We’ll admit, for the brain-meltingly daunting task of forming a DIY bi-county economic development project, the three parties involved — SCF, SMR, and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation — have been doing a pretty gull durn stellar job. Honestly, the warp-speed timeframe in which the DEAL developed has probably been the biggest cause of confusion. Free from our beloved gauntlet of time-gobbling committee approvals, the DEAL was off and running within two months, which leaves us convinced the project actually came together in some kind of parallel dimensional version of Sarasota where things happen quickly, and then transferred back to our side of the universe just in time to baffle reporters at the press conference.

I mean these guys actually had the cojones to punch the accelerator before they even had the doors shut, in a city that usually demands all seatbelts fastened before the key enters the ignition. That’s a euphoric sight to behold in our eyes, as long as they yank ol’ moneybags in the car before they really get moving. As of now, it appears Mr. Moneybags will arrive via a state-issued bond backed by student-paid capital-improvement fees. They are looking into a few other options, but the rest have more baggage attached or come up short of the $14.4 mil needed for the DEAL’s scheduled completion in 18 months.

But the TWIS wasn’t totally off in his initial assessment. No one’s denying their intentions of the DEAL being a first Lego piece in a full-scale four-year Lego college. But the idea is to develop said college around the needs of the Suncoast. In other words, SCF plans to actually create programs to train workers for specific businesses as they move in. It’s a little thing called “Workforce Development,” and it’s something we’ve kinda sucked at for quite some time.

In fact, we’ve always been pretty good at the exact opposite of this concept. We like to produce workforces of designers, artists, illustrators and photographers so we can send them off to New York and L.A., or just bus them up to Disney in Orlando, so they can find work. And the industries that we need workforces for — hospitality, tourism, culinary and the ever-expanding tech and bio fields — we haven’t tried too hard to accommodate. That’s another reason Jensen says businesses run for the hills. There’s nobody in this town that knows how to work for them. The DEAL allows SCF to say, “What kind of workers do you need, Mr. Company? Well, let me see if I can’t come up with a program to train some of ’em for ya.” Not a bad deal, we say.

So, as we were a little skeptical of the DEAL before, now we’re thinking it could turn out to be a pretty sweet DEAL — as long as Mr. Moneybags doesn’t pull a Where’s Waldo?

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