New Beacon Council CEO faces challenges on many fronts
Written by Michael Lewis on October 9, 2013
A warm welcome – and free advice – for Larry Williams, new this week as CEO of Miami-Dade’s economic development organization, the Beacon Council.
Fresh from Atlanta as the fourth CEO of the 28-year-old council, he’s a longtime development pro who is for the first time in full charge.
It’s commendable that the council’s search team chose another professional to replace Frank Nero, ousted in March after heading the council for much of its existence. So many local political favorites sought the job that it would have been easy to pick one.
Mr. Williams’ success is vital. We need jobs. More important, we need high-paying jobs with long-term upside potential. Jobs in key sectors are essential.
Government can’t lure such jobs because companies on the move demand confidentiality, the county lacks clear aims and companies from abroad are wary of government and fear corruption.
Government can repel business but not secure it. That’s why job development apart from government remains so vital.
Mr. Nero’s legacy includes rebirth of One Community One Goal, a drive to build seven key industries via the pivotal role of education. The targets might not all pan out, but they do offer a roadmap for where we might best expend energies and funds.
As economic, business and global conditions change, however, Mr. Williams should help guide One Community One Goal in directions most likely to build high-paying jobs. Don’t engrave targets in stone.
Mr. Nero was correct that education is the basis for good jobs. But before an educated workforce catches up with our needs, aim to build the job base to aid the present workforce.
Mr. Williams and the Beacon Council team must achieve that with a budget scaled to a mid-sized community on the grow, not a metropolis in need.
They must also find ways to do that with a board that split in the ouster of Mr. Nero and to build board support in the process.
Because of board frictions and political pressures, it would be wise for Mr. Williams to quickly meet with business leaders outside of the Beacon Council. If nothing else, some might join up. Now some of them call the council irrelevant.
One reason for irrelevance would undoubtedly be increased pressure for county hall control.
Many county officials are unrealistic about economic development. Some say that giving away more than $1 million of the council’s budget – about a sixth of it – to mom-and-pop businesses is a development tool rather than a vote-buying ploy. Mr. Williams will face that fight.
Safeguard the money. Unfortunately the county loves a pussycat but hates a tiger. Too many commissioners see money that by law should go to the Beacon Council as cash for their pet projects.
Giveaways are no more development than is big-time gambling, another fight to gird for. It’s vital that the council not waffle. Don’t be driven to irrelevance.
The corollary is that Mr. Williams must focus. Many projects will surface that can’t add jobs or are unrealistic. Get the best bang for limited bucks and time.
That means not trying to out-chamber the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. The Beacon Council is morphing into an events team, raising cash from meetings and panels. That’s fundraising but not jobs focus.
The chamber and the council have very different aims. Beacon Council events tend to be more relevant, but ginning up events for pay is someone else’s turf. The chamber can’t build jobs and the Beacon Council shouldn’t be a networking hub.
Mr. Williams should leverage clear, specific targets to add funding by local businesses. We aren’t Atlanta with corporate headquarters that kick in cash, but companies we have don’t look on the Beacon Council as a vital use of their funds either.
The Beacon Council is woefully underfunded. But Mr. Williams shouldn’t look for more county money, because officials tie long strings to aid and wrap it in red tape.
You shouldn’t have to protect the Beacon Council’s flanks. Who could sanely disagree with economic development? Unfortunately, the environment the Beacon Council operates in requires backbone. Mr. Williams will have to beware of pressures to do the wrong things from the best of intentions.
But protection doesn’t demand being defensive. Mr. Nero had to battle over and over to protect the council from the county and in the end seemed antagonistic. Mr. Williams should be open and honest about the council’s efforts, successes and even failures.
To show commissioners how jobs are lured, take them around the county with outside site selector groups to learn what they look for. It’s an eye-opener.
Be realistic about what we have to offer – and what we don’t. Locales that some county commissioners want to develop because they lack resources are not attractive to business precisely because they lack resources. Government incentives will seldom tip the balance.
It’s also vital to leverage strengths. Miami in some respects is the hottest brand on the planet, but sizzle doesn’t attract corporate headquarters or large-scale manufacturing or high tech if we lack the trained workers.
Don’t bend over too far to meet the aims of county officials whose highest goal is not development. Government is not business.
On Oct. 24, Mr. Williams will be introduced at the Beacon Council’s annual meeting. It will be important to be realistic about claims of council gains and to use multiple metrics to measure success. Our job creation numbers are abysmal, but retained jobs we might have lost without Beacon Council efforts and real expansion of existing businesses here should be factored in too – and then ratcheted up quickly.
But manage expectations from the get-to: nobody on earth is good enough to quickly make Beacon Council numbers eye-popping.
Mr. Williams gets a fresh start with a sometimes-antagonistic county. He should bury the council’s past and start clean.
If he targets the aims of economic development and not those of politicians, he’ll be starting down the right path.