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For retailers, Hernando County no longer for sale cheap

By JEFF WEBB

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 15, 2001


The tables have turned.

Not too many years ago, the Hernando County Commission would have dropped to its knees and dangled a carrot to a fast-food chain that would deign build a pre-fabricated hut on U.S. 19 or State Road 50. Creating a few jobs and adding a few bucks to the tax roll were cause for high-fives and headlines.

My, how times have changed.

Now, the County Commission's carrot is gold-plated and it is the corporations who are on their knees and begging for the opportunity to share in our county's bounty.

The latest evidence of that transition is Wal-Mart, the corporation that is as American as apple pie to cost-conscious consumers, but sour grapes to mom-and-pop stores that cannot compete with the retail Goliath.

After working on an ordinance to more strictly regulate construction of the so-called "big-box" stores that have their eye on Hernando, the County Commission was prepared to pass it last week. Some people believe the commission's progress on this matter, which would regulate lighting, facades, parking and landscaping for stores that exceed 25,000 square feet, was directly tied to Wal-Mart's desire to build a supercenter at the southwest corner of U.S. 19 and Spring Hill Drive.

Ordinances such as these are relatively common. Hernando County has just been slow on the upswing because previous commissions lacked either the foresight or the know-how to dictate terms to mega-corporations such as Home Depot and Lowe's.

But a funny thing happened on the way to taking a vote Tuesday. The commissioners, who already had received a veiled threat of legal action from Wal-Mart's contracted attorney, Brooksville's Joe Mason, delayed the discussion. The reason? Wal-Mart dropped Mason, presumably because it disapproved of his antagonistic approach, and sent a new lawyer and a half-dozen engineers and designers to the commission meeting. They requested, and were granted, more time to work with the the county planners and attorneys to make the big-box ordinance "something we all can work with," as one Wal-Mart mouthpiece so eloquently put it.

Translation: They want the law rewritten so that it will not cost them as much money to develop and build on the site.

It was generous of the commission to agree to a three-week extension (the ordinance will be discussed again July 31). They easily could have told Wal-Mart its kinder, gentler approach was too little, too late. They simply could have ignored Wal-Mart's 11th-hour overture and forged ahead. The votes were there for passage.

But, despite the delay, Wal-mart should not celebrate too soon. In what could turn out to be a case of "Be careful of what you ask for because you just might get it," the county may use the extra time to make the ordinance even more restrictive. At least one commissioner, Diane Rowden, says that is why she voted for the postponement.

"I don't think it is tight enough, and it needs more than just tweaking," Rowden said Friday.

Let's hope other commissioners share that view and the proposed ordinance will be even stronger.

The commission is finally beginning to realize it can control its own growth and development destiny. It can require whatever it wants -- frontage roads, sound buffers, berms, signage, security fences -- as long as the regulations are legal and applied evenly.

The big-box stores, just like the chain restaurants, are coming to Hernando County because that's where the people and the demand are. It's all about population and demographics. No successful retailer is going to bypass Hernando County because it will require extra up-front capital to meet the community's standards.

This is what the commissioners must always bear in mind. They are in the driver's seat, and if some prospective businesses whine or get puffed up and threaten to take their services elsewhere, say "See ya!" They'll only hurt themselves when their more-cooperative competitors corner the market. And even if the pigheaded profiteers make good on their threat to open up in another county, who cares?

If they aren't going to be good corporate citizens from the get-go, it's not likely that attitude will improve.

After so many years of waiting to be discovered by corporate retailers, it may be a challenge for the commissioners, as well as some old-timers who fancy themselves movers and shakers, to change their way of thinking.

But the sooner we begin to operate from the premise that the retailers need us more than we need them, and that what we have is not for sale cheap, the sooner we'll become grown-up growth managers.

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