Hillsborough commissioners want to create super economic development agency
Hillsborough commissioners heard a presentation Tuesday on the county's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to attracting new businesses as they grapple with how to kick-start the local economy. The upshot: Tampa, and Florida generally, has to move beyond its past of promoting fun, sun and cheap living and come up with an updated "brand." Also, Hillsborough County needs to capitalize better on existing assets, like the University of South Florida, and identify construction-ready land. In other words, not overly earth-shattering stuff.
But there was a bit of exchange that hints at something worth watching. At one point, Commissioner Ken Hagan suggested turning to the county's Industrial Development Authority as an economic development driver. The obscure government entity currently puts together low interest bond issues on behalf of companies looking to build or expand a business. But it hasn't been used much in recent years except by non-profit groups.
The IDA could do more under existing laws, such as buying land, taking a more active role in promoting new development and putting together incentive offers. Hagan said he'd like to look into if and how the IDA could be reinvented. That bears watching simply because of the implications of essentially creating a new government agency in charge of putting together business development deals, potentially largely out of the sunshine.
But what also was curious Tuesday was that Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham quickly said he was going to propose the same thing and that he had been studying the issue. This appeared to confuse other commissioners, who started asking questions that indicated they didn't understand what was being discussed or even know what the IDA is. To be sure, it's not an agency normally front and center of commissioners' consciousness.
County Administrator Mike Merrill had first floated the idea, with little detail, at a commission retreat in December. Then, earlier this month, he asked board members through a consent agenda item to postpone appointing new members to the IDA.
Hagan has scheduled a discussion on the topic when the commission meets Feb. 2.