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Chamber offers development proposal

Under the plan, a chamber employee would focus on small business, while the county seeks bigger game.

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 2, 2002

SPRING HILL -- The Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce now wants to take a more active role in economic development, less than a year after turning its back on a suggested public-private partnership.

The chamber's board of directors last week gave the Office of Business Development a proposal that offers to provide the county with business expansion and retention services on a contract basis. Under the proposal, a business expansion/retention coordinator would work for the chamber for a salary of $67,900 a year, paid for by county taxpayers.

Retention and expansion also falls under the directive of the Office of Business Development. But Jeff Hooper, chamber past president, said the duties of the prospective chamber position would focus on small businesses, such as retail stores and restaurants -- leaving the county office to handle manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers.

"Our economy is predominantly composed of small businesses," Hooper said. "This (position) is a way in which the Chamber of Commerce could help with the overall economic development plan of the county, in helping small business in the service sector."

Office of Business Development Director Mike McHugh told chamber leaders that although he was interested in discussing the proposal, funding and county budget constraints prevent further action.

"I don't see it going anywhere at this point, because of funding," McHugh said, "at least not until the budget picture becomes clearer."

The rather unexpected proposal has raised the eyebrows of several business and political leaders around the county. It arrives after the chamber had told the county last September that it had no interest in entering a private-public partnership, in which the chamber would have promoted, marketed and recruited new businesses, as recommended by a University of Florida study on Hernando County economic development.

"They didn't want to have anything to do with the county," said County Commissioner Diane Rowden. "They didn't come back with any other suggestions; they just said they didn't want to do that at that time. But that's all right; they probably sat back and said, "Wait a minute.' "

Indeed, the episode sparked an internal discussion among the chamber, looking at ways to help the county with economic development, Hooper said. The proposal is the result of that nearly 10-month-long discussion.

In May 2001, the county stepped away from a public-private partnership when it terminated its contract with the Hernando County Economic Development Commission, after months of controversy about the agency's ineffectiveness. The county then created the Office of Business Development to assume economic development duties.

"It's a little bit of a surprise," said Len Tria, a former member of the Economic Development Commission. "It sounds like what the county just got away from doing, and what they've hired Mike McHugh to do."

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