Digital Domain Media Group was supposed to expand from California and bring 500 jobs to a new visual effects and animation studio in Port St. Lucie. In exchange, Florida put up $20 million in incentives, with more sugar on top from Port St. Lucie, which is now on the hook for a $40 million bond issue that was used to build the 115,000-square-foot complex.
Gov. Rick Scott wants the state to get taxpayers’ money back from an animation company known for such hits as the movie Titanic. He has directed the Department of Economic Opportunity to make sure Florida is represented in Digital’s bankruptcy. Good.
The deal, brokered in 2009 before Mr. Scott came to office, never should have happened.
Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private partnership that works to lure companies with good-paying jobs to the Sunshine State, had rejected Digital Domain’s application. The numbers just weren’t adding up. There was more work to do to ensure due diligence for Florida’s taxpayers.
But Digital Domain had friends in Tallahassee. And, of course, Digital had legislators eager to fast-track the development despite Enterprise Florida’s rejection.
At the time, Republican state Rep. Kevin Ambler of Tampa pushed the Legislature to approve $42 million in state economic grants without Enterprise Florida’s approval. Digital Domain was on that list. Mr. Ambler lost his reelection bid in 2010 but he earned about $20,000 a year by serving on Digital Domain’s board, plus $2,000 for every board meeting he would attend.
For Mr. Ambler, then, it seems to have been a win-win.
For Florida taxpayers, though, it’s a lesson in what not to do when considering economic development projects. Rule 1: Follow the rules!
When it closed the Palm Beach County facility in September Digital Domain had 300 workers in lucrative high-tech jobs, the kind the state and South Florida are eager to attract. Now those jobs are gone. And Florida State University’s film program, which had partnered with Digital for a new bachelor’s degree and to train local workers in digital production, is scrambling to try to lure another film company to the facility.
That’s a real wild card, particularly as the Board of Governors that oversees the state’s 12 public universities must decide if FSU should even have a film program only a few miles from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
In Digital Domain, politicians broke the rules and rushed into a deal that ultimately will hurt Floridians.
Contrast that disaster with a deal worked out by the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s economic development partnership. The deal aligns with the county’s “One Community One Goal” strategy to grow and attract targeted industries like high-tech.
With Enterprise Florida’s blessing, the Beacon Council helped Sapient Corporation, a digital advertising and IT company, combine its three Miami and Miami Beach operations into a single facility at the Mayfair hotel, shops and office complex in Coconut Grove. That will keep 283 workers in Miami-Dade County with jobs averaging $67,000 annually. The move, which will be completed by next year, will add 112 direct jobs and another 56 indirect jobs in five years, with a state incentives package of $6 million.
Instead of leaving for Toronto, Sapient is staying in South Florida. And it was done without breaking the rules meant to protect taxpayers from a financial Titanic.