Business

Enterprise Florida selects former legislator as new leader

As head of CareerSource Florida, Chris Hart addresses the Economic Council of Martin County in 2014.
As head of CareerSource Florida, Chris Hart addresses the Economic Council of Martin County in 2014. Economic Council of Martin County

The embattled agency that Gov. Rick Scott relies on for job creation chose its new leader Wednesday.

Enterprise Florida agreed to hire former state Rep. Chris Hart IV of Tampa to run the quasi-governmental agency that oversees the recruiting of businesses during a two-hour meeting attended by Scott.

Hart, 48, has run the state’s job training development agency, CareerSource Florida, under Scott and prior to that he was the interim director of the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development under former Gov. Charlie Crist from Jan. 2010 to early 2011. A Republican, he was in the Florida Legislature from 1998 to 2002.

“I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be apart of this grand adventure with all of you,” Hart told Enterprise Florida board members at a meeting in Miramar Beach in Northwest Florida. “What better place than Enterprise Florida to help our fellow Floridians realize their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations.”

Hart’s positioned was advertised as having a salary between $175,000 and $200,000.

Enterprise Florida board members are touting Hart’s past as a legislator as a sign that the agency will work better with the Florida Legislature, which gutted Scott’s job incentives programs last year by refusing to give Scott any of the $250 million he requested. Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Pasco County, has declared the incentive program as “corporate welfare” that conflict with his view of government’s proper role.

Hart will take over an Enterprise Florida that is still paying for issues left over from former CEO Bill Johnson. Enterprise Florida announced this week it had spent $107,000 since June on an outside accounting and management firm that specializes in taking on “distressed situations” and “helps clean things up.” Another $10,000 might still need to go to that company, CFO Strategic Partners in Orlando, before they complete their task, said Rodney Ownby, vice president of accounting and finance at Enterprise Florida.

Johnson left Enterprise Florida in June after Scott unceremoniously announced months earlier that he would be “transitioning out” of the agency. Scott never said Johnson was fired, but Johnson was given a $132,400 severance package on top of his $265,000 annual salary.

As Johnson was leaving, an outside review of the agency warned that it was overspending on management, travel and lacked internal financial controls to prevent fraud. Since then, the agency has cut employees from 80 to 57, trimmed management, reduced office space and put better internal controls in place.

Despite the turmoil, Scott has been unwavering in his support of Enterprise Florida and has vowed to keep pushing the Legislature for more money for job incentive programs — despite Corcoran’s objections. Before Hart was officially hired, Scott praised Enterprise Florida for being instrumental in helping Florida add more than 1.1 million private jobs since he was elected.

“Bottom line is that it works in our state the way we are doing it,” said Scott, who added that Florida has won over 500 competitive projects against other states since he took office thanks to Enterprise Florida.

Florida does not have a traditional commerce department like many other states. Instead, 20 years ago, Florida created Enterprise Florida to be a quasi-governmental entity with a 64-member board of directors that runs it largely like a private business. About 90 percent of its operations are funded by taxpayers.

For much of Scott’s tenure, Enterprise Florida has been a cherished organization charged with leading his efforts to recruit companies from other states and nations to move to Florida to create jobs — a central theme of Scott’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns for governor.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @JeremySWallace

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