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Pasco economic message: Curtailing incentives is shortsighted

By C.T. Bowen
Mettler Toledo Safeline general manager Viggo Nielsen, shown here shaking hands with county Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, said the company is now hiring and plans to open its new plant in Pasco County in February. Times Staff (2016)

WESLEY CHAPEL — It is a sign Viggo Nielsen has been anxious to see for more than a year. First came the fresh coat of paint on the building’s exterior, then the blue lettering on the white banner facing motorists on the Suncoast Parkway: "Now hiring.’’

Nielsen, general manager of Mettler Toledo Safeline, said the company, which manufactures food safety equipment, plans to hire 120 people for its new manufacturing plant near the parkway and State Road 54 in Lutz. That is in addition to the hundreds of positions relocating from Hillsborough County and 50 more coming from Ithaca, N.Y., where Mettler Toledo is closing its operations and consolidating into the new 250,000-square-foot building in Pasco County.

The plant plans to open in February, Nielsen revealed Nov. 1 during an economic summit at Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel. The three-hour session, put together by the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, the college and Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore, was intended to focus on east Pasco. But it was one of the county’s most recent economic recruiting successes, luring Mettler Toledo’s $30 million plant to central Pasco, that helped provide a focal point for a discussion on incentives, workforce development, education and other industrial-recruiting caveats.

Panelists for the morning session included Nielsen, J.D. Porter of Wiregrass Ranch, ComPark 75 owner and auto dealer Larry Morgan, and Kartik Goyani, a Metro Development Group vice president overseeing economic development within the 7,800-acre connected city corridor project in central and east Pasco. Among the highlights:

• There was near universal disdain for the brouhaha in Tallahassee earlier this year when House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, attempted to gut Enterprise Florida’s budget to eliminate economic development incentives.

Mettler Toledo, Raymond James Financial Services, which bought 65 acres in Wiregrass, and one of Morgan’s tenants in Compark 75, the engineering firm UC Synergetic, all benefited from job-creation incentives. Corcoran characterized incentives as corporate welfare.

"Shortsighted,’’ said Nielsen.

"Pretty said, pretty disgusting,’’ said Porter,

"Incentives are a way of life across the country,’’ said Morgan.

Later, keynote speaker Jerry D. Parrish, chief economist and director of research for the Florida Chamber Foundation, echoed the sentiment, saying he hoped to "see more common sense up there (in Tallahassee) instead of bashing business.’’

• Panelists split on the importance of low tax rates. Goyani said taxes are just one piece of the information employers consider in deciding the affordability of a location while Nielsen said, "I don’t think it’s as big a deal as it’s made out to be.’’

Porter, however, said increased impact fees — one-time charges on new construction to offset infrastructure costs — could make new homes less affordable, and Morgan said higher tax rates, leading to higher rents, can play a role in determining commercial occupancy rates. "Every dollar is important to them,’’ he said.

• Bill Cronin, Pasco Economic Development president and CEO, asked the audience of 85 people to consider carefully the November 2018 constitutional amendment to increase the homestead exemption another $25,000.

Pasco County has said the amendment, if enacted, would take a combined $10 million from its general and fire department funds if property tax rates remain unchanged.

"That money has to be made up somewhere,’’ said Cronin. "It’s coming from the county.’’