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Business 2005

County making steady strides in gaining employers

Widening the industry base is a slow, consistent push forward, the business development office says.

Published February 13, 2005

If steady progress is an indicator, it appears Hernando County is making inroads attracting industry.

That's no small accomplishment for an area where residential growth and a service economy have ruled for years.

Mike McHugh, who heads the county's Office of Business Development, is helping to lead the effort to diversify the local economy. Building on significant successes in 2003, McHugh's office last year produced a second string of victories:

-- S&W Healthcare Corp., which is in the cardiology equipment business, announced it was moving from Floral City to a 25,000-square-foot building at the Airport Industrial Park. The reason? Hernando is booming. The company plans to employ 30 people by the end of the year.

-- An existing business, MCR American Pharmaceuticals, announced that a subsidiary, TG United Labs, was also moving to the Airport Industrial Park, where it will occupy an 18,000-square-foot building. The pharmaceutical manufacturing company plans to employ 60 people by the end of 2005.

Those developments came even as McHugh was finally able to generate interest in Cortez Crossing, a business park at State Road 50 and Interstate 75. The park was developed in 2002 with a $750,000 federal grant that brought roads, water and sewer service to the site.

The grant came with strings attached, but the pool products manufacturer that had committed to locate there and create jobs for low-income residents pulled out, creating headaches for McHugh and his office.

But consider that in the past year:

-- Four area building companies teamed up to start Hitek Truss LLC. The company will build in Cortez Crossing, making roof trusses to satisfy high demand among local builders. Hitek is to employ about 35 people.

-- Most critically, Pasco-based Universal Microwave Corp. announced it was relocating its microchip manufacturing plant from Odessa to Cortez Crossing. The company is to build a 20,000-square-foot building and will hire at least 22 new employees, 12 of whom will be low- to moderate-income workers.

With the arrival of Universal Microwave, Hernando County will make good on the terms of the federal grant that was used to create Cortez Crossing.

It was just a matter of time before interest in the park grew, McHugh said. Just a stone's throw from the interstate, it is perfectly situated for businesses seeking to serve the entire state, he said.

"Ultimately," McHugh said of Cortez Crossing, "it will be a huge success story."

In 2005, McHugh hopes to expand choices for businesses looking to locate in Hernando.

Land in the Airport Industrial Park can only be leased, not purchased. And many businesses want to own the land on which they operate, McHugh said.

So McHugh has his eye on several large, vacant parcels totaling 150 acres along Anderson Snow Road between Spring Hill Drive and the Anderson Snow Sports Complex. Also in his sights are several fragmented parcels along U.S. 41. They range in size from roughly 5 to 20 acres.

The idea is to interest current owners or groups of investors in breaking up those parcels into smaller lots and running roads and water and sewer lines to them. The improved lots could then be sold to businesses.

The effort, if it succeeds, would lead to a mix of commercial, industrial and office space in the area. What McHugh would love to see, he said, is a white-collar firm, perhaps involved in law or engineering, buy one of the lots and move up from Tampa.

That could happen.

Inquiries from Tampa Bay area businesses are more frequent these days, and McHugh credits the Suncoast Parkway for opening up Hernando to those from farther south now faced with a space crunch and high land prices.

"It's dispelling the myth that we are far away," he said of the parkway.

Although serving the needs of existing businesses is critical to his work and Hernando's future, McHugh said his continuing effort to lure outside industry serves an important purpose.

In the eyes of many business leaders, he said, Hernando is rapidly becoming a bedroom community for people who work in Tampa, and service-sector investment is the money bet. He said they too often fail to see how near the county is to urban areas or how fine its road network is.

When they see others making the move, however, they believe.

"Deals lead to deals," McHugh said.

Helping McHugh land those deals is a group of local business executives called Hernando Progress.

Members 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 December 2003, Hernando Progress created a $30,000 fund that McHugh could tap into to woo prospective businesses. There are limits on how taxpayer money can be used for such purposes, so the private funds offer McHugh greater flexibility.

In 2004, the money was used several times to rent a helicopter and give interested business leaders an aerial tour of Hernando.

"It's been very, very helpful," McHugh said of Hernando Progress. "They have stepped up when we needed them."

Kimbrough, SunTrust's chairman and chief executive officer, said Hernando Progress will continue to offer assistance in 2005. From time to time, he said, the fund is replenished and money is doled out on an as-needed basis.

"Our mission in life is to promote quality economic development and proper growth for our county," Kimbrough said. "We are in pursuit of new employers. That's our purpose in life."

Such efforts are essential, Kimbrough said, because there are no guarantees that the home building industry will remain as strong as it is today.

Variety is necessary so the local economy has everything it needs to withstand all kinds of weather, he said, and variety is achievable.

"We are making slower progress than desired," he said, "but steady progress."

[Last modified February 8, 2005, 16:44:07]

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