BY SCOTT ANDRON
sandron@MiamiHerald.com Miami Herald July 15th
More than 100 people turned out for a forum at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens to discuss the state economy as Enterprise Florida draws up plans for the future.
A panel of experts and audience members discussed how to ensure that Florida remains an attractive place to run a business. Much of the discussion revolved around Florida’s international business connections, which are particularly important in Miami.
Panel member Nelson Alvarado, president of Miami-Dade-based International Finance Bank, said that many international banks are leaving South Florida because of the “regulatory environment.”
”We don’t welcome anymore our business partners,” Alvarado said. “We are making things difficult.”
Panelist Alan Becker, managing shareholder of the Hollywood law firm of Becker & Poliakoff, said the problem is a set of new rules under the USA Patriot Act, which requires banks to ask foreign clients where they got their money.
The rules are aimed at combating money-laundering and preventing funneling of money to terrorist organizations, but Becker said they also drive off legitimate accounts.
Finance is one of many international industries that have become a part of South Florida’s economy. Miami-Dade’s chief business recruiter, Frank Nero, said more than 1,200 multinational firms now have offices in South Florida, up sharply from a decade ago.
Nero, president of the Beacon Council, added that more than half of the companies his economic development agency works with nowadays are international.
They’re drawn by factors like the region’s easy access to Latin American markets and multilingual workforce.
Panelist Gary Spulak, president of the U.S. branch of Brazil’s Embraer Aircraft, said his firm recently decided to put a sales center and assembly plant in Melbourne after considering five sites in three states.
At least once a month, he said, he is approached by officials from places as far afield as Iowa who would like him to bring jobs to their states.
”Florida is extremely competitive. That’s the good news,” said Spulak, who is based in Fort Lauderdale. “The bad news is the other states are catching up.”
Tony Villamil, dean of St. Thomas’ business school, agreed.
”Florida is becoming a global brand,” Villamil said. But, he added: “Every state wants a piece of the international action.”
Becker also brought up a frequent complaint of Nero and other local business leaders: that Florida schools are underfunded and underperforming compared with those of other states.
”Our education system is what’s going to stand in the way of world-class economic development,” said Becker, a former state legislator and a specialist in international business law.
“No corporate executive is going to come here when they can’t get a first-class education for their kids.”
Liane Ventura, a vice president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
”Our legislators refuse to raise taxes to improve education,” she said.