BROOKSVILLE — More than 30 years ago, Ron and Veronica Johnson closed their successful safety equipment distribution operation in Canada and headed to sunny Florida.
They landed in Port Richey and in 1976 opened a new operation, Accuform Signs, in a small leased space.
When the small company sought to expand, industrial property in Pasco County was too expensive, the founders' son, Wayne Johnson, told the Times in 1988. With land prices more reasonable and industrial zoning less of an issue, Accuform moved its operation to Hernando County in 1986 with 21 employees.
Business grew rapidly and, with more than 120 workers in 2003, the company moved to a 67,000-square-foot facility at the airport industrial park. Company officials said at the time that they didn't know what they would do with all of the space.
Few would have envisioned how quickly Accuform would be bursting at the seams once more.
On Thursday, surrounded by county dignitaries and the extended Johnson family, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the company will double its workforce and triple its manufacturing space by building a $15 million facility at the Hernando County Airport Corporate Park. He said it was one of the largest manufacturing projects announced in Florida this year.
Now the company's chief executive officer, Wayne Johnson voiced support of the governor's job creation efforts and said he was pleased that his family's company would bring more manufacturing jobs to the state.
"I often say that made in the USA is better when it's made in Florida,'' Johnson said, with agreement from Scott and the rest of the audience gathered at the county's business development office at the Hernando County Airport.
The new 304,000-square-foot facility will be on a 44-acre site owned by the airport at the corner of Corporate Boulevard and Aerial Way. Construction will begin early next year with completion expected by early 2014.
Already the largest employer in the county's industrial park complex, with roughly 280 workers, Accuform vows to add another 271 workers by 2016. Eventually, the facility could employ 600.
For months, county officials have been laying the groundwork for a manufacturing company to build new local headquarters and create much-needed jobs.
August's unemployment rate was 10.8 percent in Hernando, a county that for several decades thrived on a vibrant home-building industry.
Until Thursday's news conference, the company had been referred to only by the moniker "Project Kodiak."
Hernando County business development manager Michael McHugh told the crowd gathered Thursday afternoon that the time had come to share the good news.
"Project Kodiak sounds cold and far away,'' McHugh said, "but it is really right here and right now.''
Then he introduced the governor.
"It's really nice to be here,'' Scott said. "As you all know, I ran my campaign on getting our state back to work.''
He explained that it was only fitting that he participate when new jobs are created, and he thanked Johnson and his family for their willing investment in the county.
"You should be very proud of what you've built,'' Scott said.
He said that not only is Accuform — which manufactures safety signs, badges and related products — a family business, but also one that's grown families around it.
"I'm very appreciative of anybody who takes a risk to build a business,'' the governor said. "It's an important business. … It's a major part of this community.''
Johnson said that, since 2007, Accuform has doubled its business, and it expects to double again by 2017.
It now has clients on several continents.
Company officials brainstormed about what to do as they reached capacity at the current site, Johnson said. They considered opening a satellite manufacturing plant closer to their customers or moving the entire operation elsewhere.
Expanding in Hernando County was their third option.
"I want to assure you, we explored all three options,'' Johnson said.
Ultimately, they decided to stay in Florida and in Hernando County. Taxes are low, regulations are minimal, there is a ready workforce, and recruiting is easy because "when it rains, it rains on palm trees'' Johnson explained.
Once the decision was made, Johnson said, he contacted McHugh to begin to explore how the county could help.
Accuform is in line to receive $4 million in state and local incentives, with the county's share of that cost approximately $2.7 million.
In late August, the County Commission supported a resolution for Project Kodiak as a qualified target industry, making it eligible for the state's tax refund program. That program will cost the county $175,200 over the next five years, a 20 percent match of the state contribution.
The state's tax refund program is an incentive for companies that create high-wage jobs in targeted industries. The incentives include refunds on corporate income, sales, property, intangible personal property, insurance premium and other taxes.
The refunds are performance based, and the company will be required to provide documentation each year regarding job creation, job retention and wages. The incentives are based on the company creating jobs that pay at or above the county's average annual wage, which is $28,894.
The commission has also sought a waiver from the state Department of Economic Opportunity that would raise the amount the county can seek in a community development block grant from $750,000 to $1.5 million. The grant would be used for infrastructure.
The waiver has been accepted by the state and is expected to be approved after a public notice requirement, McHugh said.
If the county receives that grant, it will pay for water and sewer extensions that would benefit not just Accuform, but other companies that might be interested in industrial property in the same area of the corporate park, he said.
The remaining incentives, including a $500,000 "high impact incentive grant,'' will be considered by the County Commission within the next six weeks.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.