Business groups must unite now in economic recovery drive
By Michael Lewis
As our local economy falters, business should begin a recovery drive. Any wait is too long, because confidence and financial lives keep eroding.
If the heads of the Beacon Council, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Coalition of Chambers of Commerce and Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau don't unite now, it won't happen. Government won't do it.
We're rocked back on our heels. Greater Miami, along with the nation, has been shell-shocked, first by the condo collapse, then the mortgage and foreclosure crisis, then the banking collapse, then the stock market nosedive, then soaring unemployment.
Everyone is waiting for the next shoe to fall. But we can't wait. We may not know how we'll next feel the global crisis but we urgently need to do what we can here and now. We can re-assess our path as shoes do fall.
We should act in three distinct but coordinated efforts, a triage:
1. Care immediately for our community's wounded at all levels who are losing homes and jobs and income and confidence in the system. They need First Aid. Give it now.
2. Convene simultaneously work sessions to help small and mid-size businesses survive today and develop clusters to work and do business jointly.
Every chamber of commerce will one day do this. But the wait may be too long and the separation among chambers too great. Convene now.
3. Enact a mid-term strategy that targets advantages that can help us end our doldrums ahead of a cyclical rebound. We'll recover eventually with others, but we'll come back faster and stronger by agreeing on core strengths and focusing resources on them as springboards. The task force should pick the springboards and get moving.
We might focus on advantages in the meeting and visitor world that could lead to an expanded convention center, melding a quick construction jobs infusion with a mid-term gain in business.
Or perhaps we'll target bio-tech and create an incubator with immediate jobs and a mid-term likelihood for growth. Or it could be a film and video production hub, offering quick jobs and a longer-run growth potential. Or maybe something less glamorous but equally effective.
Choices are many. The key is rapid agreement to concentrate scarce resources on efforts that will aid now with jobs and later grow a segment where we have a distinct advantage to help Miami rebound faster than others.
We need to rifle in on those segments with all our ammunition, not scatter-shoot in myriad directions with too few bullets.
We might brand our recovery task force We Will Rebuild — a title we used when a cooperative team moved us far ahead of a mere passive wait after Hurricane Andrew devastated us. Or it could be United We Will, Bounce Back Miami, Onward and Upward — anything.
Whatever the name, the effort must be real, not window dressing. Overpromising is worse than doing nothing.
To succeed, heads of the business groups should jointly enlist the rest of the business sector and the non-profit world, starting with the United Way. At the same time, government must join, because county, city and state links are vital.
But government-run efforts could turn political. Instead, get a respected but underemployed chief executive out of his boat or off the beach or golf course and let him volunteer to lead this effort.
Miami has recovered that way before. Alvah Chapman ignored Knight-Ridder to make We Will Rebuild a powerhouse. He drafted an ex-county manager who had become a corporate executive, Ray Goode, to run day-to-day efforts. We rebuilt well under that structure.
In an earlier crisis, the 1991 shutdown of Eastern Airlines that dislocated 20,000 workers and cost the county $60-million-plus a month in spending, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce wrote 2,000 letters a day to find every open job and listed them at a special one-stop center that brought in multiple state agencies, the United Way, the Private Industry Council and more.
In one spot, dislocated workers got to file for jobs, search a job data base, get aid for families and food stamps, find mortgage and counseling help, use a free nursery while they were job hunting and more.
A new one-stop center could bring first aid to victims of the economic storm. Or there may be a better way. That's what the current iteration of We Will Rebuild should determine, then initiate, then carry out.
In fact, the focus in all three efforts — aid to individuals, aid to business and a community drive to recover — should be to choose an action plan quickly, then pursue it rigorously and faithfully.
Unfortunately, we can't decide democratically. That would be ideal, but we don't have months, or even weeks. Workers are being laid off daily, houses foreclosed on daily, businesses sinking daily — and every day we delay a mid-term recovery plan means a day longer we'll writhe in economic pain.
We need business to step up now.
Refreshingly, the first coordination bid came not from business but from government. Commissioner Javier Souto two weeks ago asked the county to focus on economic problems internally.
In a letter to commissioners and the mayor, he wrote, "Our County has been extremely slow to react to the steady downward spiral in our economy."
He suggested a steering team for the county on the crisis and asked also "that we reserve time at the beginning of each Board of County Commissioners regular meeting for the discussion of the economy and economic issues relating to our national economy, our local economy and the financing of County construction..."
If the county adopts this excellent idea, it could add a powerful link in the overall We Will Rebuild effort.
But we can't wait for the smoke of economic battle to clear. As Mr. Souto noted, we're already late.
And we're short of leaders. We no longer have a Knight-Ridder. We have few large corporate headquarters. Even fewer focus locally.
That's why key business groups must step up. They can't wait for the elections, even though results may affect what we can get done in South Florida.
Yes, this business juggernaut must form now and quickly tell all that help is on the way, that Greater Miami is going to emerge a winner from the battle and that the wounded will receive care today.
And it must be more than public relations. It has to be real. Because the economic health of every institution, every business and every resident is on the line. Business leaders need to show that they mean business.