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A Times Editorial

Attract higher-paying jobs to build economy

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001

Bigger does not mean better for the Pasco County economy.

Bigger means continued growth in low-paying retail and service jobs. That is going to occur anyway because of steady population growth. It's why the size of Pasco's economy has grown faster than the nation's strongest economic areas, yet local salaries barely kept pace with inflation over the past 15 years.

According to 1998 figures, the $23,122 average annual salary in Pasco is just 78 percent of the statewide average.

The focus then for the county government and the public-private Economic Development Council should be to improve the local economy by attracting higher-paying jobs in so-called primary or contributory industries -- companies whose payroll comes from the sale of goods or services outside the Pasco economy.

A study delivered Wednesday by William Fruth, a Jupiter-based economist retained by the EDC, spelled out steps the county and private sector need to take to be successful.

Paradoxically, the current work force is the county's strongest asset and one of its biggest liabilities for industrial recruitment. Low-wage earners are severely underemployed and would need job training. Yet, their salary history means industries could locate in Pasco County and offer wages better than the county average but below the competitive rate in South Florida or other metropolitan areas in Florida.

Other county assets include the proximity to an international airport and major university, and access to multilane highways, but its weaknesses include the limited track record with major industry.

"Having evolved as a retirement community, the work force and social-political structure within the county is not familiar with the needs or benefits of production employers," Fruth wrote.

Fruth's study, the first of its kind for Pasco, identified medical-related industries and insurance companies as potential targets for EDC recruitment.

The study recommended a goal of attracting 3,500 jobs paying at least 125 percent of the county's average wage by 2011. That means 294 jobs next year paying an average of $30,853 up to 464 jobs in 2011 paying $42,382.

The effort is needed because of the long-term strain on local government revenues from predominantly residential growth.

"You'd be better off if nobody moved there. People cost money from a government services point of view," Fruth said Wednesday morning in delivering his report.

Historically, Pasco has neither ignored nor emphasized economic development. At the same time the effort began in earnest in the mid 1980s with the creation of a countywide Committee of 100, the county government began an impressive list of infrastructure improvements including better roads, expanded central water and sewer service, a trash incinerator and new parks and libraries.

The private sector is increasing the stock of speculative buildings for new industries. The county has set aside some federal block grant money for industries to use for expansion and also adopted an economic incentive ordinance to entice new businesses.

Still, commissioners should be proactive to ensure the study doesn't just sit on a shelf collecting dust. Incentives, for instance, should be changed to reward companies that create the desired higher-paying jobs.

The county also should examine its own financial commitment to the EDC. The annual appropriation to economic development has remained mostly flat and now stands at $250,000. The EDC raises $100,000 more from the private sector, but likely will ask the county for an increased contribution in the future. Fruth estimated a county the size of Pasco should have at least $500,000 budgeted.

Committing resources toward an enhanced economy is imperative to the long-term quality of life in Pasco County. But it takes more than money.

It takes, Fruth stated accurately, community leadership.

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