Sunshine State's business climate: No. 1 now, after no-growth '70s

No. 12, No. 8, and then No. 1 twice in a row. That's how Alexander Grant & Co. has ranked Florida's business climate for general manufacturing for the past four years.

The rankings have come out in a series of studies this Chicago-based accounting firm has done of the 48 contiguous states.

Floridians, naturally enough quite proud of the rankings, suggest that the hard-numbers approach Alexander Grant uses actually understates their state's attractiveness, since no points are given for quality of life.

But business-climate surveys have not always left Florida beaming with pride. Until just a few years ago, Florida was regarded as a playground, not a workplace. The Fantus Company made a study of the Florida business climate in 1978 and came out with ''a scathing report,'' according to Lt. Gov. Wayne Mixson. ''They told us, 'You have to change your attitude, and it must be communicated to decisionmakers,' '' he says.

The report inspired a flurry of legislative proposals during the summer of 1979, including a package of constitutional amendments billed as Five for Florida's Future.

Some of these proposals had been introduced before, says Mr. Mixson, who doubles as the state's commerce secretary, but garnered only 25 percent of the vote. But this time they passed, and with a three-fourths majority.

The new measures allowed for local-option ad valorem tax holidays and reformed the state's unemployment-compensation program. Special services for business have also been set up, such as funding for road building. Florida's progress toward the ranks of pro-business go-getters started just as Alexander Grant started doing its business-climate studies, which tracked the state's upswing.

The Alexander Grant study is not the last word on where a particular firm should locate, as its authors are the first to admit. The study looks at general manufacturing climates - at a time when the manufacturing sector is shrinking and economic development teams everywhere proclaim their interest in high-technology industry. The study gives points to places with low unionization , low local and state personal-income taxes, and high proportions of the population enrolled in vocational education.

But the real importance of the Alexander Grant findings, says Lester Freeman, senior vice-president of Southeast Bank in Miami, will be to signal ''a very positive attitude toward expansion and business growth.''

Florida went through some soul-searching over the growth-or-no-growth debate of the 1970s, he explains. Retirees were not sure they wanted new businesses roaring into town, and a proposal for a jetport in the Everglades focused attention on environmental issues. But the ends have met in the middle - with the help of a serious recession in the middle '70s, Mr. Freeman says. Now, he says, ''For the first time, there's a fairly clear consensus that we're going to have growth, we're going to have a lot of it, and there really isn't any point in sitting around and musing about how we're going to stop it, because we can't.''

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