Business

Chris Hart is panel’s top pick to lead Enterprise Florida

The leader of Gov. Rick Scott’s job-placement agency was recommended Tuesday to take over as president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, which continues to face stiff opposition from lawmakers over economic-development funding.

The Enterprise Florida Executive Committee voted unanimously to back the appointment of Chris Hart, a former state lawmaker and the longtime head of CareerSource Florida, to serve as president and CEO of the business-recruitment organization.

The organization’s Board of Directors, which is chaired by Scott, is expected to vote on the recommendation Wednesday. If approved, Hart would start with the public-private Enterprise Florida on Jan. 3.

The committee selected Hart over former Florida Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary Richard Biter for the job advertised at paying $175,000 to $200,000 a year.

Biter’s son, Jesse Biter, who runs a management firm out of Sarasota, sits on the Enterprise Florida board.

The terms of a deal with Hart would still need to be worked out.

Hart’s knowledge of the Legislature, through the CareerSource position he’s held since 2007 and as a former two-term House member from Tampa, was considered a valuable selling point by committee members.

Enterprise Florida Vice Chairman Alan Becker, also a member of the executive committee, said Hart’s legislative knowledge “might come in handy this year.”

Search Committee Chairman Stan Connally, CEO of the Pensacola-based Gulf Power, pointed to Hart’s experience working at a public-private agency.

“He’s been a partner with this team, we can’t do what we do at Enterprise Florida without the team at CareerSource, so we’ve been partners a long time,” Connally said after the committee meeting. “And absent individual [legislative] members, he knows the process. And knowing the process, and knowing how things work, and knowing how funding for public-private partnerships work, there’s clearly a skill that is valuable to us.”

Hart, a Republican, also worked a little more than a year as director of the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development in the governor’s office starting in January 2010. The position, in which he worked under former Gov. Charlie Crist and Scott, overlapped with his work as leader of Florida’s $300 million workforce system.

Enterprise Florida has been without a president since June 24. Former president and CEO Bill Johnson resigned following the Legislature’s rejection of Scott’s request for $250 million in economic-incentive money for the public-private organization.

Scott has announced he will ask lawmakers for $85 million for incentives in 2017. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has said he intends to work for the governor’s proposal if the money is available. Meanwhile, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has expressed concerns that the state’s financial situation may be more dire than state analysts have projected, has called the use of business recruitment incentives “corporate welfare.”

“When you’re taking money out of the masses’ pockets and then giving it literally — to the Democrats’ argument — to the top 1 percent, to the detriment of everybody else, that is de facto socialism,” Corcoran said in October during a panel discussion hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit conservative think tank.

Hart, who remained outside the room Tuesday while the search process was discussed and the vote was cast, said after the committee meeting there are a lot of “commonalities” between Enterprise Florida and CareerSource.

“I already felt like I’m part of the governor’s team,” Hart said. “The more I was looking at that, and the more I looked to bring about worker prosperity as well as employer prosperity, it seemed like a great fit.”

Out of 101 applicants for the job, Biter and Michael Finney, a former adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, interviewed for the position on Sept. 28. Finney recently withdrew his application, saying he is considering a teaching position at the University of Michigan.

There had been talk of Hart running both Enterprise Florida and CareerSource, but Hart said he’s not asking for such an arrangement.

Hart also said he’s already thought about recommendations to fill his job at CareerSource but would prefer to first make those suggestions to that agency’s board and the governor.

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