PRESIDENT & CEO, BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT BOARD OF PALM BEACH COUNTY,
west Palm Beach
The top staffer at a local economic development group typically smacks of a pro forma pick for a list of influentials. Smallridge became president and CEO of the county economic development group in the midst of a blowup in 2004. The Business Development Board and its 15-year president, Larry Pelton, had been the lead in the county’s recruiting effort to land the Florida campus of Scripps Research, a multi-million dollar state and local incentive deal. But the deal, as promising as everyone said it was, had fallen into a thicket of trouble over the site. Several commissioners credited Pelton with good work for the county and for his leadership on recruiting Scripps. But others who weren’t in on the negotiations early on got into a fight with Pelton over Scripps’ first choice of a site — it wound up elsewhere. He wound up abruptly resigning to remove himself as an issue.
The board replaced him as interim — later permanent — president with Smallridge, then 38 and already a 17-year BDB employee. She had started as a marketing contractor, moved into recruiting and up to COO. Smallridge had been a public relations major at the University of Florida, a handy background given that the board faced, in the words of the local Sun Sentinel, “significant public relations challenges.” Smallridge believed the answer lied in the board doing the right thing. “Then the public relations will come,” she said. She made the site selection process more open to all comers. Ever since, she’s remembered the importance of keeping government in the communications loop. She also has never shied from saying that while incentives are important in recruiting business, workforce development, housing and education are critical.
Palm Beach won the Scripps sweepstakes with a $310-million state and local incentive package. It also later recruited the Max Planck Society for $92 million. Of the major life-science research recruits Florida spent millions to lure earlier this century, they’ve been the only two to thrive. The others shuttered or struggled and were absorbed into other institutions.
Aviation and aerospace are an integral part of the county’s economy, although often overlooked by outsiders. Smallridge has worked to build that sector and, among others, financial services. She’s been in the media nationally championing the county as a place for northerners tired of high taxes. The board’s Behind the Gates marketing campaign targeted CEOs with second homes in Palm Beach County and led to 1,000 jobs at high average salaries coming to the county. She received the Governor’s Ambassador Medal in 2013 for job creation.
Smallridge now is the state’s longest-serving economic development president. She chairs the Florida Economic Development Council and serves on the boards of Enterprise Florida, the South Florida Fair, the Homeless Coalition and the Education Foundation.
Smallridge grew up in Palm Beach County, where her father worked as a Pratt & Whitney engineer. “He has the most brilliant mind out of everyone I have ever met along with a kind heart and giving soul,” she says.
On a personal note, if she had a sabbatical, she would like to try being a youth pastor. She says she dreams of never having to wear a business suit and heels again. She lives in Wellington where, pre-virus, she hit Agliolio weekly for a fix of fresh Italian. She wishes she could create a program to make it financially feasible for young college grads to live here on an average salary. “They are bright, energetic and have so many great ideas to lend to the state, but most cannot afford to live here on an average salary.”
“I was a single mom for seven years as my boys lost their father at a very young age. Life is not easy. We don’t succeed despite of our problems. We succeed because of them. Adversity builds character and creates resilience.”