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County ponders luring businesses

One way to bring in companies is economic incentives. Some say they're worth it. Others say they're unnecessary.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Community opposition killed an effort to put a federal prison in Hernando County.

But even if the idea had more public appeal, the result likely would have been the same. Days before county commissioners withdrew their support last week, citing public antagonism, Wackenhut Corrections Corp. began backing away from its proposal for economic reasons.

Hernando's utility hook-up and impact fees were higher than other counties' and commissioners refused special treatment to the prison company.

"If you take away the ugliness of the prison and look at it as a company . . . they would say the same," said County Commissioner Chris Kingsley, who is on the county Economic Development Commission. "We need to decide what are we going to do to get companies like that into our county."

The EDC has compiled a folder thick with other counties' incentive programs, and a six-member committee led by Kingsley and local real estate agent Robert Buckner is considering whether to recommend any such lures in Hernando. Its report to the County Commission is due in July.

"There are a number of things that can be done by county government to make it more appealing" to relocate a business here, said Rick Michael, the EDC's executive director.

Ideas include tax abatements, wage subsidies and infrastructure improvements, and they vary depending on a company's specific needs.

As it stands, about three-quarters of all companies that contact the EDC ask about incentives, Michael said. Finding none, dozens of businesses have looked elsewhere, he said.

To reverse that trend, the EDC must determine the obstacles and find out what turns the corporate "no" into a "yes," Michael said. It's important, he said, because every dollar added to the commercial tax rolls lessens the burden on residential taxpayers, who cover nearly 80 percent of the county revenue.

Support for incentives is not unanimous.

"Who do you think will subsidize them? It is your residential and commercial taxpayers who are already here," said County Commissioner Pat Novy. "Some think the companies will be in competition with them. Why should we as a county use their tax dollars to increase their competition?"

Maybe the county could set up a streamlined permit system to aid incoming businesses, she said. Perhaps the county even could develop a program to help land owners prepare their properties to entice new firms.

But as far as financial deals go, Novy said, forget them.

However, County Commissioner Bobbi Mills deemed the county's impact fees "astronomical" and argued for flexibility when dealing with business proposals.

If a company promises to bolster the county's economy with buckets of dollars in property taxes and dozens of high-paying jobs for residents, some breaks might be in order, Mills said.

"It's the job of the EDC to determine what kind of economic impact, in pretty hard numbers, it would have and what kind of incentives they would like to offer," she said.

Cookie-cutter rules would not serve the county well, County Commissioner Nancy Robinson said. The EDC and commission must evaluate each proposal individually and see whether incentives are warranted, she said.

Incentives cannot be offered willy-nilly, though, Robinson said.

She called upon the EDC to tell the County Commission what barriers have hurt Hernando in past attempts to attract business so it can have an informed conversation about the type of incentives that might work.

County Commission Chairman Paul Sullivan said he would support relaxing impact fees and offering other incentives to "clean, high-paying, high-employment firms" that want to come to Hernando County.

"But economic times right now are very good," Sullivan said. "Most businesses don't need incentives to come here."

The debate is healthy, area economic development experts said.

"Wackenhut has done them a favor," said Mary Jane Stanley, executive director of the Pasco County Economic Development Council. "By saying their fees are too high, that tells them they are not competitive."

Now the county can decide what to do.

Pasco gives transportation, water and sewer impact fee waivers to companies that meet specific criteria such as the size of their proposed building, average salary and number of new jobs they will create. Stanley called these local incentives "icing" to top off a deal.

"That is one of the things we have in our toolbox," she said.

Bill McDermott, CEO of Polk County's Central Florida Development Council, agreed that economic development cannot live by incentives alone. Polk, which has drawn such companies as Pepperidge Farms and Discount Auto Parts, offers no local financial incentives.

Instead, it relies on state programs available through Enterprise Florida and, where applicable, federal initiatives.

"We have an electorate that just hates taxes," McDermott said, and many Polk residents equate tax breaks with corporate welfare.

In Hernando, the sentiment often has been the same. Bill McGuckin, who lives near the Suncoast Parkway south of Powell Road, has urged the County Commission to keep tight control of economic development and suggests that incentives are unnecessary.

"Hernando County has got so much potential for people to come in here and make money, you should ask them to pay to come in here," McGuckin said. "You don't have to give anybody anything to come into this county, and you don't have to give anybody anything if they threaten to leave. Just wave your hand and say goodbye. This is a growing county."

Polk commissioners, who have abided by that viewpoint, lately have said they will consider sweetening the pot, however, if the right project comes along.

"There's nothing on the books," McDermott said. "It's just sort of understood that if we are faced with a really, really competitive situation and it would be really meaningful to the county . . . we are to be creative."

But more than incentives, he said, economic development relies on vision and leadership.

"If you don't have a clear vision of where you are and where you want to go, and begin to fill that in with the tactical information of how you want to get there, you're just wandering around," he said. "You need to have a focus on what you're doing."

That could mean having a targeted industry list, a five-year growth plan or some other set of strategic objectives.

A community must know what it wants and how to attract the companies, Stanley said, and each company has different needs and desires. The best incentives add the right "something extra" that entices a company to choose you, she said.

Kingsley said he hoped that after the EDC gathers its information, the Hernando County Commission will head down the path of its more progressive counterparts.

"A policy would have to be established first," he said. "You can't do it arbitrarily."

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