Florida Chamber of Commerce Chair Syd Kitson is dedicated to creating a better business climate within the sunshine state. As the Chairman and CEO of real estate company Kitson & Partners, he developed Florida’s innovative and sustainable “city of the future”: Babcock Ranch. In addition to his revolutionary real estate endeavors and Florida Chamber of Commerce efforts, Kitson also serves on the Board of Directors of the Florida Gulf Coast University Foundation, the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium, and the Grassy Waters Preserve.
Kitson is fluent in Floridian. When asked to name his favorite Florida person, place or thing that deserves more positive attention, his answer is simple: the entire state. “Florida’s not just a place to retire, but there’s a world of opportunity for people who are young and all ages, and just not only from a job perspective or to raise your family perspective, but an education perspective.” He notes that the state’s university system is successful by national metrics and asserts that Florida is far more than a retirement destination.
Unknown to many, Kitson had a notable career in the National Football League. Kitson played offensive guard for both the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys before retiring in 1985. Today, he is a member of both the NFL Alumni Association and the National Football League Players Association.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors.
I’m your host, Chris Cate and in this episode, brought to you by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Syd Kitson, chair of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
In our conversation, we’ll talk about the direction of Florida’s economy and about creating a better business climate. We’ll also talk about his work on Babcock Ranch, the first [00:00:30] solar-powered town in the country and perhaps the most innovative area in the country, too. I even ask him about playing for the Green Bay Packers, and you can hear it all right now.
Syd, thanks so much for being on the show. You honestly have one of the most interesting resumes in Florida. Not many people can say their first job out of college was playing for the Green Bay Packers. You played for Bart Starr, is that right?
Syd Kitson: That’s right. And you know, playing for Bart Starr at that age was really [00:01:00] a thrill for me. Growing up, I was always a Green Bay Packer fan, and playing for one of the great men … not just great coaches, great person, great player, but great man, was a tremendous influence on my life.
I was also very fortunate to have played for Tom Landry in Dallas. So, my NFL career might not have been the best, but I certainly had a lot of influence from two very, very, very great men.
Chris Cate: Were there any business [00:01:30] lessons that you took away from their tutelage?
Syd Kitson: There’s no question the things they taught us were very applicable to business, you know, particularly in how they conducted themselves with the integrity and the character that they ran their businesses.
Football’s a rough and tumble sport, and it can be pretty easy to run astray, and both of these men really stayed the course [00:02:00] and taught everybody around them to do the exact same thing.
And I think also, one of the things that Bart Starr taught me early on, it’s not just about working hard and being dedicated and those things, which you have to do to reach that level anyway, but it was to be smart about how you do it. And he was just again a very, very, very fine man.
Chris Cate: So how did you transition from the football field to becoming [00:02:30] a successful entrepreneur?
Syd Kitson: Back in those days, you didn’t make any money playing football, believe it or not. I think my first contract … I was a third round draft choice, I think it was for 40 thousand dollars, and the government took half of that in taxes, so, you really had to be thinking about another career back in those days.
But the influence for me really came from … I went to Wake Forest, and there was an alumni there who was a local [00:03:00] developer and he asked if I wanted to see what he had accomplished, which I was very eager to do.
So he took me on a tour of all his projects. And I’ll never forget it because as we went from project to project, he talked with great pride and excitement about not only what had been created but how they’d had such a huge, positive influence on people’s lives. And it’s something I never forgot, just looking at his enthusiasm, [00:03:30] how he had done it the right way, and again, but more importantly, how he had made people’s lives better. That really was a huge influence on me.
Chris Cate: And at what point did you make the move to Florida?
Syd Kitson: We came down to Florida in the early 90s and started … we were up in the Northeast for the first, I guess, 10 years or so of my career. And then in the early 90s came down to Florida and quickly [00:04:00] learned that this was an absolutely fantastic place to be, to do business; the people were absolutely fantastic. And so, over the course of the next 10 years, made the decision to finish up everything we had in the Northeast and then move full-time down to Florida. So it was kind of a back and forth routine for a while, but then full-time in the early 2000s.
Chris Cate: [00:04:30] Now as interesting as it is to play for the Packers, somehow you’ve managed to top it through your work on Babcock Ranch, the first solar-powered town in the country, and perhaps the most innovative area in the country too. Can you describe it for our listeners, and a little bit about what your vision is for its future?
Syd Kitson: We want to prove that preservation and a development can work hand in hand, and truly to create the most sustainable new town that’s ever been created. [00:05:00] And it’s very important to us that people understand that it can work economically, because then it will spread throughout the state and hopefully throughout the country.
When we first bought Babcock Ranch, we bought 91 thousand acres. That’s 143 square miles. And then we sold 73 thousand acres to the state, in the largest land purchase in the history of the state of Florida. And then we had 18 thousand acres remaining. Out of the 18 thousand acres, we [00:05:30] preserved half of that. So we ended up with about 9 thousand acres. At the end of the day, 90 percent of the original ranch is in preservation forever. We think that’s a smart way to move forward in the state and a smart way to grow.
And then when we looked at what we had with this 9 thousand acres, we then were able to get approvals for 19 thousand [inaudible 00:05:54] homes and 6 million square feet of retail and office space. But again, doing it the right way … Making [00:06:00] sure that we’re very thoughtful about the environment and sustainability.
And the first thing we took a look at was energy. In order to be sustainable, you have to find that right energy source. It took us about seven or eight years, but … with our partners at Florida Power and Light, we were able to, I think, do something very unique in that they have built a 75 megawatt solar-powered generating facility right on the land at Babcock Ranch, [00:06:30] making it the first solar-powered town in America. And what that actually means is that during the day when the sun is shining it’s being powered by solar energy, and then at night, when the sun goes down, it’s being powered by natural gas … with one of their local plants, off the grid. And that combination makes it the cleanest form of energy of any place in the entire country.
And I will tell you, Florida Power and Light have been phenomenal partners, incredibly innovative. And [00:07:00] just philosophically, they as an organization, are looking to do … to be as innovative and clean as they possibly can. As a matter of fact, I think they’ve already hit the 2030 standards mandated by the EPA. I think they’ve already hit those today, so we’re proud to be partners with them and proud with the direction that we’ve headed at Babcock Ranch with that.
From there, we just then took a look at every aspect [00:07:30] of the community and said, when we think about the environment, making certain that it’s walkable, it’s bikeable, we have 50 miles of trails, and really preserved as many of the wetlands, and even enhanced as many of the wetlands as possible.
We have a school that is a K through 8 new school, public charter school, that is going to be open this fall. And the school, the curriculum, is about the place, which we’re again, [00:08:00] very excited about.
From a transportation perspective, we’re going to have an autonomous vehicle system, and these are cars that drive themselves. There’s been a lot of news about those over the past couple of years, and I think people are starting to realize that this is going to be a reality. We actually started this process … gosh I want to say, six or seven years ago, and it’s happening a lot faster than even we thought. As a matter of fact, I had an opportunity to drive [00:08:30] in a autonomous vehicle out at Google, which was quite an experience.
And then on the technology side, we committed to having a gigabyte at every single home, fiber to every home and business. We have a partnership with CenturyLink and we’re doing just that. As a matter of fact, there’s free wi-fi throughout the entire community.
And then also, on the health and wellness side, I talked a little bit earlier about our trail systems. We have a health and wellness [00:09:00] building that is going up right now. We are partnering with HCA and Florida Gulf Coast University and it’s actually going to be one of the first communities to have a system-wide telehealth that all the people here will be able to use. It’s actually a pilot project that’s being done by HCA that we’re very excited about.
So as you can see, there’s a lot going on. I’m just scratching the surface, but we’re very excited about where we’re headed with Babcock Ranch.
Chris Cate: [00:09:30] Yeah. So much of it sounds so cutting edge. How difficult has it been to figure out what technological advances make the most sense for the community, or what might be too risky to try to implement?
Syd Kitson: That’s a great question because a lot of times when you put these technologies in place, two weeks later it’s obsolete and you’re kind of starting over.
So, what we did was we really felt that fiber is something that could help us almost future-proof a lot of what we’re doing. [00:10:00] Having a gigabyte … and actually, the system allows it to go up to five gigabytes. And I think most people right now probably have close to 100 megabytes. So, just to put this in perspective, you can download a movie, I think, in about five or six seconds, as an example, here at Babcock. And that’s good for businesses, it’s good for people who want to work at home. It just makes things a lot more convenient.
Part of what we’re doing is also using [00:10:30] an app system to be able to have people do things through their phones, if you will, in renting kayaks or sailboats or any of the things that we have here. They could do that through their iPhone. Or if they want to go on the trail system, they could say, “Well look, I want to go on a three mile hike today,” and it can show you several different places you can go. You can set appointments at the health and wellness center or get a [00:11:00] reservation at our restaurants.
So, you know, all those things that can make it convenient and easy to live at Babcock Ranch. But we also are very realistic and understand that, over time, technology is going to change and we’re going to just have to stay on top of it.
Chris Cate: Yeah. I imagine once people started seeing what you were creating at Babcock that more businesses and innovative companies started reaching out to you to be a part of it. Can you tell me what the reaction from the business community has been like?
Syd Kitson: It’s really been fantastic. [00:11:30] Right now, we’re in the early stages. All of the links are going up as we speak, we have model homes going up, all the infrastructure’s in place. I think what’s been really important is for people to see that this is real.
We started this back in … we closed on the property back in 2006, so it’s been over 10 years. And I think before a lot of companies were willing to commit to coming on board, they wanted to make sure that it was real, and that it was going to happen. And now that it is happening and it is [00:12:00] real, the reaction has been fantastic, and we’re already in discussions with several companies; one company in particular that’s going to create over 2,000 jobs for us. So we’re excited about those opportunities and we think that’s going to continue to grow as the project continues to mature.
Chris Cate: Wow. Do you have any goals for, let’s say like next year, how many people might be living at Babcock Ranch?
Syd Kitson: Well, we hope to start [00:12:30] closing homes probably within a couple of months, and gosh, you know … I’ll tell you a quick story. We had an opening about three weeks ago where we wanted to show people our progress here at Babcock. It was interesting in that we thought that if we could attract maybe two or three thousand people, that that would have been absolutely phenomenal. That’s a lot of people and people … you know, we had cars … [00:13:00] people were trying to constantly come into the community, but we had it gated off, because it was a construction site. So we decided to open up the gates, and we had our Founder’s Fest, and again, hoping to get two to three thousand people, which we thought would have been just a home run. Over 20,000 people showed up for this two day event. And very candidly, it caught us off guard. We weren’t quite prepared to have that many people show up here.
But I think what it illustrated, more than [00:13:30] anything else, is the interest that people really have in a new sustainable community. And again, this is not a gated community. This is a new town. And that’s a very different concept. Down here in southwest Florida, there’s quite a few gated communities with golf courses, where here we’re literally creating a new town.
Chris Cate: Another couple of hats you wear is Chair of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and you’re also on the Board of Governors too, so you really are invested in [00:14:00] the future of Florida business-wise but also talent-wise, you know, working with the universities. Can you tell me about some of the work you’re doing with the Board of Governors to improve the talent base through the university system?
Syd Kitson: Yeah, being part of the Board of Governors and being Chair of the Florida Chamber of Commerce has been extremely rewarding.
The Board of Governors is a great opportunity to truly impact young people’s lives, and it really matters. [00:14:30] What we do there matters a lot.
And then, as you were saying, marrying up our curriculum, marrying up the universities and colleges with the jobs that are needed here in Florida is something that we’ve been very, very focused on. There are 240,000 jobs available in the state right now that need the talent to fill those, so really focusing on having the right curriculum, having the right [00:15:00] courses and classes and majors that sync up with the private sector is very, very important.
It’s something that everyone right now, on both the college and university levels, even the high school levels are really thinking about and paying attention to.
Chris Cate: How would you characterize the direction of Florida’s economy and workforce right now? Are we moving in the right direction at the right pace or would you like to see a little bit more momentum building?
Syd Kitson: I think Governor Scott has done an extraordinary job [00:15:30] of really leading us through the downturn and has been just incredibly focused on creating jobs. And it’s literally in everything he does, in his policies and the things that he’s done, from a business climate perspective, have just been right on; they’ve been dead on.
I think the important thing for us as a state is to take that momentum and make sure we continue it. Let’s not step backwards, let’s continue to make it … [00:16:00] create that business climate to attract companies, not only to start new companies here, but to attract businesses from other parts of the country to come down to Florida and to continue to diversify our economy.
I think that diversification is going to be very, very, very important to us as we go forward. There will be another downturn in the future and the more diversified we are, the better off that we’re going to be. Tourism, construction, agriculture have always been strong for us, [00:16:30] and they will continue to be. But having other companies in other sectors come into Florida is very, very important.
Chris Cate: Great. All right. I have four more questions, and they’re questions I ask every guest. Here’s the first one: who is a Florida leader you admire? And it can be someone from Florida history or someone still active in their work.
Syd Kitson: You know, there are a number of leaders that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, but I would say Jeb [00:17:00] Bush is somebody that I have always admired and looked up to … In particular because of his stance on education. I think that so many of the bold ideas and things that he did [inaudible 00:17:12]his time as governor. I think Jeb [inaudible 00:17:15]among others that have really stood out [inaudible 00:17:18] the state of Florida. We have great leaders here.
Chris Cate: What is your favorite Florida location to visit? And that can be a city, a restaurant, a beach; whatever you like.
Syd Kitson: You know, I would honestly say that [00:17:30] my wife and I love to visit the beach. And the beaches here are absolutely spectacular. They’re clean, and the water’s nice and warm, so we love the Florida beaches.
Chris Cate: Do you have a favorite Florida sports team? I’m sure you still have some allegiance to the Packers and Cowboys, but is there a Florida sports team you prefer over the others?
Syd Kitson: I probably have … I’ve become very fond of the Dolphins, even [00:18:00] though they haven’t really had a lot of success. They have a great young coach, and I think they have a really fine quarterback and they have kind of the structure there to, I think, be great, so I’ve become a Dolphins fan.
But I will say, I that I think the Tampa Bay Lightning has been a lot of fun to watch. Jeff Vinik has done a spectacular job with that team and what he’s doing in Tampa, so I’m kind of a fan of both the Dolphins and the Lightning.
Chris Cate: Definitely. [00:18:30] And finally, what Florida person, place, or thing do you think deserves more positive attention than what it’s getting right now?
Syd Kitson: You know, I think just … I think Florida in general needs more positive attention. It’s incredible when I travel around the country, how people still perceive Florida to be a place to come to retire, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. And I think that that word still needs to be spread around this country and around the world [00:19:00] that Florida’s not just a place to retire, but there’s a world of opportunity for people who are young and all ages, and just not only from a job perspective or to raise your family perspective, but an education perspective. The universities in Florida, the university system in Florida is like number one in the entire country this year, by US News World Report. So I think that that word needs to get out a little bit better that it’s [00:19:30] not just for retirees down here in Florida.
Chris Cate: Excellent, and that’s a great way to end the interview. Syd I really appreciate you being on the show.
Syd Kitson: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too.
Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. [00:20:00] If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams. Look us up at saltermitchellpr.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at fluentinfloridian.com. Have a great day.