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A private partner woos for public advantage

Hernando Progress grabs the tab when economic development goals conflict with tax dollar prohibitions.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published February 15, 2004

The corporate executive is mulling whether to bring his company to Hernando County, and a helicopter ride over the Nature Coast may help seal the deal.

(Just look at how pretty it is!)

The glitch for county business development director Mike McHugh is that using taxpayer dollars to get the executive off the ground is not permitted under state law.

(Ah, those pesky statutes meant to protect public money!)

That's where Hernando Progress steps up to the plate.

The group, at one time the private fundraising arm of the now defunct Hernando County Economic Development Commission, established a $30,000 fund in December to cover the costs of entertaining prospective corporate clients of McHugh's office.

"There are times when you want to convey that your community is a great place to live and work," McHugh said. "Having a private entity willing to step up and reduce the obligation of the taxpayer is a good thing."

Hernando Progress executives include Cliff Manuel of Coastal Engineering Associates, Jim Kimbrough of SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast, Mickey Smith of Oak Hill Hospital, Billy Brown of the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, Duane Chichester of Hernando Today and Tom Barb of Hernando HealthCare.

In the past, Barb said, Hernando Progress' efforts on behalf of McHugh's office have been largely informal. In the future, the goal is to tune up the group's mission and give greater structure to its relationship with the county's Office of Business Development, he said.

Broadly speaking, Hernando Progress aims to support economic development in the county. According to Barb, that can at times require augmenting the county's efforts and providing a pool of money for recruitment when the county cannot.

"It may be appropriate to wine and dine certain people," Barb said.

McHugh welcomes Hernando Progress and its money, but said it was crucial to have an "arm's length" relationship with the organization.

He envisions approaching the group when a need is identified with a generic proposal that does not give specifics about the project in question. That way, the self-interest of Hernando Progress members can be checked and a public-spirited tone to its efforts ensured, McHugh said.

"I don't want anyone to feel that if and when they help that they would have any more knowledge of a company or business coming in than anyone else," he said.

Apart from its involvement with the Office of Business Development, one action Hernando Progress is considering involves assistance to Hernando County in its role as a member of the Tampa Bay Partnership.

The county belongs to the regional economic development group, which is seeking, among other initiatives, to hire a lobbyist to bring more federal transportation dollars to the area.

The county has asked Hernando Progress to pay half of its $5,000 commitment to cover the lobbyist's salary. Barb said Hernando Progress members have been polled and believe helping to pay for the lobbyist is an appropriate use of its money.

No final decision has been made, however, on whether to grant the county's request, Barb said.

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 01:15:45]


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