This Miami leader is ‘optimistic’ about chances of landing Amazon HQ2. Here’s why
By: Jane Wooldridge
December 13, 2017
Don’t tell Michael Finney that traffic is a show-stopper. Since moving to Miami early last summer, the new CEO of the county’s economic development agency has gotten all around the county just fine, thank you, using public transit and ride-sharing services. In fact, according to Finney, despite our mass transit shortcoming, Miami-Dade is one of the best-connected cities in the country.
As the CEO of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, Finney is paid to be optimistic. But he also has an outsider’s frame of reference. Before moving here, he traveled around the globe as an executive with a manufacturing company before moving into economic development for Rochester, N.Y., Ann Arbor, Mich, and the state of Michigan.
His take: Miami has plenty to offer companies, but it needs to do a better job of tooting its own horn.
A: I worked for a growing manufacturing company that partnered with the local economic development organization to assist with its expansion. I learned how valuable it can be to work with economic development professionals to accelerate the expansion of local businesses and to maximize the return on investment. After an exploratory discussion with State of Michigan economic development professionals, I decided to join the Michigan Economic Development Corporation on a full-time basis.
Q: You talked about tax incentives. As the recent bid for the Amazon headquarters underscored, Florida offers far less in terms of specific incentives than some other states. How do you counter that when talking with companies about moving here?
A: It’s true that other states often offer rebates on taxes but remember Floridians don’t pay personal income tax and our corporate tax rate is much lower than most other states. When a state like New Jersey offers $7 billion in tax credits for 10 years to land Amazon’s HQ2, Florida may still be more competitive based on an “apples-to-apples” comparison of business costs over a 10-year period. Florida, and specifically Miami-Dade is a business-friendly regulatory environment with relatively low business costs.
Q: Aside from the weather (which is much warmer than Rochester or Michigan!), what drew you to Miami?
A: Besides Miami’s amazing year-round weather, Miami presented an interesting business opportunity for me as an economic development professional. Miami is well known for its phenomenal quality of living, but it’s also one of the world’s most interesting global cities. Miami is truly a city of the future. I see it as an opportunity for me to contribute to Miami reaching its potential as a world-class city. Businesses can have it all in Miami – great talent, great global access and a lifestyle second to none. So far, it has been an exciting six months.
Q: Winter weather is obviously one of the lures for companies considering relocation. What are Miami’s other competitive advantages?
A: Besides the obvious unparalleled quality of life and weather, our competitive costs of living for a major city; world-class parks and recreation; great public and private school; nationally renowned health facilities; and a globally recognized arts and culture community including the internationally renowned Art Basel fair. Miami is a “Global City” and one of the most connected regions in the country with thousands of nonstop flights every day domestically and around the world.
Q: What are Miami’s disadvantages when it comes to attracting new companies? Do hurricanes, rising seas and traffic come up as concerns?
A: Every community in the country has concerns. The difference with Miami is that we are being very proactive in finding solutions in sea level rise, sustainability, etc.
One of our major disadvantages is that we don’t have a focused marketing campaign that tells the Miami business opportunity story, locally, nationally and internationally. Miami-Dade has changed a lot in the past 10 years. We expect our efforts, with support from many government and business partners, will attract new companies and encourage existing companies to expand. We have a great product here and we need to tell Miami-Dade’s new story to the world.
With Hurricane Irma, Miami-Dade proved to be a resilient community; with help from many local support organizations, we were back in business in a few days.
Miami has become a transportation hub, not only for South Florida but the rest of the world. We are one of the most connected cities in the country. Our local transit operations are improving as we move forward with the new SMART plan being implemented through Miami-Dade County and the Brightline regional train that connects Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties.
Q: For those of us who live here, housing affordability is often a concern, particularly when it comes to mid-market housing. How do outsiders see the situation? Do they view housing here as expensive, or to them is it a relative bargain?
A: Compared to other major cities around the country, we have competitive living costs and several housing options throughout Miami-Dade County. We have diverse options from Miami Gardens and Liberty City, Miami Shores, Miami Lakes, Homestead, Kendall, City of Miami to Doral. People moving from major metros like New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles find a decrease in the cost of living after moving here.
Q: What kind of companies and industries are the most-likely targets for Miami?
A: We have identified seven sustainable high-paying industries that are expanding their presence in the Miami-Dade area. Aerospace, hospitality and tourism, trade and logistics, technology and creative design are also growing. This past year, the Miami-Dade Beacon Council welcomed 46 companies who either expanded or relocated and created over 2,134 new jobs. We want to continue the momentum and to increase these numbers in the years to follow.
Q: Although wages have crept up lately, Miami lags behind other major metros in wages. What does it take to spread the wealth more widely here?
A: Miami-Dade County is leading in the percentage of increase wages. As recently reported, the county saw wages increase from $50,596 in the first quarter of 2016 to $54,732 one year later. By identifying target industries in Miami-Dade through One Community One Goal [strategic plan], we concentrated on promoting and expanding high-wage sustainable businesses that are flourishing in Miami-Dade County. Examples are KLX Aerospace Solutions, which located their global headquarters here, and Telemundo, which moved its NYC headquarters to Miami. Miami is also No. 1 in the nation in new startups.
Q: Miami rightly claims its diversity as a strength. But some groups historically get left behind — particularly young black males. What can change that?
A: Over the past several years, I have been fortunate to work on programs that address the challenges faced by residents living in poverty. In Michigan, we launched a program known as Community Ventures (CV). CV is an economic development initiative that promotes employment and social enterprise creation in the state’s most distressed urban areas. It addresses key barriers for employment while providing additional services to prepare people for success — such as mentoring, basic education, employment training and financial literacy. The program exceeded all expectations, and provided a relatively short-term [return on investment] to the state. We have discussed options for launching a similar program in Miami-Dade with key workforce development organizations.
Q: What is your No. 1 strategy for convincing businesses to relocate?
A: We are looking for business in selected target industries that are expanding operations. Our approach is to get decision makers to include Miami-Dade as an option for future expansion and to visit Miami to discover the opportunity that exists for business success. I am convinced that we need to better tell our story about Miami being a community of the future where companies can thrive and their employees can live a great life both personally and professionally.
Q: If you were going to take a relocation prospect to one place in Miami where they could get flavor of our city, where would that be?
A: Miami-Dade is a big county with many unique cities. Most companies provide a set of specifications that narrow the site options to a few communities. Factors to consider include: customer requirements, overhead, proximity to talent, transportation, etc. From there, it is important to expose them to business leaders, to our community assets that addresses their unique requirements. This creates an understanding of how Miami-Dade’s assets can contribute to the success of business.
Q: Over the years, suburban communities have complained that downtown gets more than its fair share of relocating businesses. Is that true, and how can you address that?
A: I have met with community leaders from across Miami-Dade County. In all cases, they express a desire to increase their business base. Our challenge is to increase the pipeline of new business opportunities so that all communities can experience job growth. The One Community One Goal strategy serves as a tool to leverage community-wide assets to help grow businesses.
Q: We often talk about the start-up ecosystem here, but we’re still in infancy. What does it take to make South Florida a tech and start-up hub?
A: Miami-Dade was recognized as the No. 1 start-up business location in the United States by the Kaufmann Foundation for 2017. This provides evidence that we have a vibrant ecosystem. The challenge is growing companies that start in Miami-Dade. The most frequently referenced needs include equity capital, talent (serial entrepreneurs) and first customers. There are many organizations focused on improving access to these key resources, and the Miami-Dade Beacon Council plays a supporting role. We also think our universities are great resources for tech innovations and talent.
Q: Does South Florida have any realistic chance of winning the Amazon bid? What did we learn from that process?
A: South Florida has the talent resources from our four R1 and R2 ranked research universities with a total of 375,000 students presently enrolled, a labor force of 3,170,000 and a global connectivity community. The New York Times, Foreign Direct Investment Magazine and Moody’s Analytics placed us on their list of top contenders as a potential location for the Amazon HQ2. Amazon announced that 238 proposals were submitted for their consideration. We’ll likely find out our standing during the first quarter of 2018. I am very optimistic.
Q: What has surprised you most about Miami, something that you didn’t expect when you moved here?
A: What surprised me the most is that Miami is not on the radar of business decision makers throughout the world. We have a lot to offer businesses. We simply need to invest the resources necessary to effectively tell the Miami-Dade story around the world.
Job title: President & CEO, Miami-Dade Beacon Council
Education: Master of Arts in Human Resources from Central Michigan University and a Bachelor of Business Administration from Saginaw Valley State University
Background (previous positions): Finney served Michigan Governor Rick Snyder as senior adviser for economic growth and president & CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). His responsibilities at MEDC included serving as Economic Growth Group Executive and as president and chairman of the Michigan Strategic Fund. Under Finney’s leadership, the MEDC moved to the forefront of U.S. economic development organizations with innovative new initiatives, including Pure Michigan Business Connect, Community Ventures and the revitalized “Pure Michigan” tourism campaign and Michigan Export programs.
Finney also previously served as president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise, Rochester, New York; vice president, Emerging Business Sectors, MEDC; senior vice president and general manager, Thomson Saginaw Ball Screw Company; and Assistant City Manager, Saginaw, Michigan.
Personal: Married to Gina, a human resources professional
Children: Three adult sons: a software engineer; an entrepreneur and a student
Hobbies: Staying healthy by working out and eating well; exploring Miami and South Florida; outdoor sports (primarily golf); playing chess and watching “Dancing with the Stars!”
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