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Beacon Council names Atlanta tech promoter as new president

The Beacon Council tapped as its new president and CEO a veteran of the economic-development front who currently runs the technology arm of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Larry Williams, 49, was picked by the tax-funded group’s board as the replacement for Frank Nero, the longtime head of the Beacon Council who was ousted earlier this year amid tension with Miami-Dade’s elected officials. The Beacon Council is an independent nonprofit that relies on Miami-Dade taxes for the majority of its budget. Its mission is to recruit companies to Miami-Dade and promote economic growth in the county.

“Miami has a lot of great things going for it,” Williams said in an interview at the group’s Brickell Avenue headquarters in Miami. “It seems to be doing well.”

In picking Williams, Beacon Council leaders opted for an executive with experience in the economic-development business, rather than a local candidate well-versed in Miami-Dade politics. PortMiami director Bill Johnson, a longtime county executive, pursued the job, as did other local notables, including former Miami Beach manager Jorge Gonzalez and former ambassador Luis Lauredo.

A native of North Carolina, Williams talks with a Southern accent but he addressed board members in Spanish before Friday’s final vote on his contract. He became proficient in the language as a student at Costa Rica’s National University in the 1980s.

The hiring of Williams caps a tumultuous year for the Beacon Council, which has scrapped with county commissioners over the $4 million it receives each year from Miami-Dade. After a series of confrontations with commissioners and private friction between Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, board members forced Nero’s resignation with a six-month severance package.

Williams is scheduled to start his post on Oct. 7. Nero’s compensation package totaled about $390,000, a sum that rankled critics. Williams accepted a pay package estimated to be about 30 percent less than Nero’s: a base salary of $225,000, plus a bonus of about $68,000 if he hits performance goals, according to two people briefed on the terms. The contract lasts for three years and came with a $10,000 signing bonus, the source said.

Williams will be the Beacon Council’s first new permanent leader in two decades. Nero took the job in 1996, and resigned on March 8. Robin Reiter, a consultant for private foundations, was hired as temporary CEO and will continue until Williams begins his job.

In picking Williams, the Beacon Council ended a guessing game of whether PortMiami would be under new leadership at a crucial time, as a new tunnel prepares to open and port cities gear up for a deeper Panama Canal. Johnson seemed a leading candidate for the Beacon Council job in May.

At the time, Gimenez said Johnson would be “great” for the job and approved a $120,000 raise to keep the port’s deputy director, Juan Kuryla, from taking the top job at Jacksonville’s port. Gimenez named Kuryla “seaport director designee” with a salary of $290,000, slightly more than Johnson’s $263,000 yearly pay, according to county records. Johnson has already committed to retire by 2015.

“It’s full speed ahead at PortMiami,’’ Johnson said in a statement issued Friday. “My continuing focus is on growing our port and creating new jobs for this community.”

Williams said he met with Gimenez last week. Privately, Beacon Council leaders said Gimenez was involved in the hiring discussion but did not have final say on the board’s pick.

On Friday, Williams said he would focus on economic growth in three categories: encouraging entrepreneurs, helping existing businesses expand and recruiting companies. The Beacon Council competes with other agencies around the country in luring businesses to Miami-Dade, and Williams said in his Atlanta job he works with the tax-funded incentive offers and relocation consultants that are crucial to the process.

“Larry seems to us as someone who clearly is an economic-development professional,” said Joe Pallot, general counsel for aviation-parts maker HEICO and volunteer chairman of the Beacon Council.

Before coming to the Atlanta chamber in 2011 as vice president of technology industry development, Williams served as an assistant director at Washington State’s Commerce Department between 2006 and 2010. He held a similar position in Washington’s Economic Development department and worked for North Carolina’s Commerce Department between 1993 and 2001. Williams graduated from North Carolina State University and lives with his wife, Pamela, in the Atlanta area.

On Friday, Williams was upbeat on Miami-Dade’s current standing when it comes to economic development. He cited a “healthy pipeline” of companies considering a move to the area, and said the county’s educational offerings give it an advantage.

“You’ve got some great institutions here in higher education,” he said. “That’s really the backbone of economic growth.”