Even as 2003 saw American manufacturing jobs go abroad and a relative stagnation in domestic job creation, Hernando County managed to attract some businesses last year.
Duratek Precast Technologies Inc. announced plans for a new headquarters and training facility at the Hernando County Airport RailPark, and that it was considering building a production plant in Brooksville. Also at the RailPark, 84 Lumber Co. announced plans for a 23,000-square-foot office, retail and storage complex.
And Topline Automotive Engineering Inc. of Chicago announced plans for a manufacturing center at the RailPark. Topline is to create at least 200 new jobs, becoming the largest manufacturer to locate in Hernando in two decades.
Mike McHugh, who heads the county's Office of Business Development, said such successes during a difficult economy have been gratifying. This year, McHugh said, he will push ahead with some new initiatives, while continuing to help businesses that have already made the decision to locate here navigate state and local bureaucracy.
"We stay busy with those folks," McHugh said. "It's not just "Hey, glad you are here' and close the door."
One continuing focus of his work, McHugh said, is to combat misperceptions that he called the "weak link" in the county's economic development effort.
Too often, McHugh said, people view Hernando County as an industrial backwater: too far from Tampa and other urban centers; lacking in manufacturing; an unsophisticated bedroom community.
Such perceptions matter greatly when trying to get industry to come, McHugh said. You can have all the infrastructure and all manner of business subsidies, but if a company owner cannot see living and raising his or her children in a given area, it's a tough sell, he said.
To skeptics, McHugh said he'll try this approach: You buy a house in Brandon, McHugh will say, and I'll buy a house in Spring Hill, and I'll beat you to Tampa International Airport.
Such persuasion can work, but nothing matches a happy company leader who has relocated and spreads the word about how great things are going in Hernando.
"That's better than any marketing you could do," McHugh said.
In addition to the critical job of keeping his current clientele pleased, McHugh's office wants to develop, in-house, a strategic business development plan for the county.
The work is meant to identify potential threats to business growth, to identify Hernando's current economic development strengths and weaknesses and to determine how best to expand and retain existing businesses, which, while they may not get the media attention of a newcomer like Topline, are key to the county's future.
The plan is needed, McHugh said. Although his office has had some undeniable recent successes, certain long-term trends are troubling.
Currently, McHugh said, 25,000 workers leave Hernando daily to go to jobs elsewhere, while only 5,000 workers come to the county. Also, he said, the number of new residents coming to Hernando continues to outpace job creation.
Sounds sort of like a bedroom community, right?
Of course, these are trends common to many semirural Florida counties near urban centers. But they are deserving of attention when one's goals, as is the case with McHugh, include creation of high-value jobs, attracting investment and promoting the health of local businesses.
County Commission Chairwoman Betty Whitehouse, a Democrat running for a second four-year term this year, said McHugh's office did wonderful work in 2003, particularly in developing industry at the RailPark.
What Whitehouse, who serves as the commission's liaison to the Office of Business Development, said she wants to see more of in 2004 is growth on the east side of the county, particularly along the Interstate 75 corridor.
"That's an area that has great potential," Whitehouse said, "and we need to focus on that."
In fact, in 2004, McHugh said he expects to see further activity at the RailPark, as well as at Cortez Crossing, a now-vacant industrial/commercial park at I-75 and State Road 50.
A former vice president at Florida Crushed Stone, McHugh, 41, is near to completing two years as head of business development for the county.
The agency is a successor to the county Economic Development Commission, which imploded in 2002 after questions were raised about its effectiveness and its use of public money. A public-private partnership, the EDC got much of its operating cash from the county.
McHugh said the EDC was focused more on attracting big-name industry, while his office, a department of county government, is concerned with assisting small business owners, as well as landing the big fish.
And the differences do not end there, he said.
When it comes to the public money that funds his operations, McHugh said he demands transparency.
"You just have to have absolute full disclosure," he said. "That's just unquestionable."