Thursday, June 21, 2018
Business

Departing Hernando County business recruiter shows no reason to return to bad old days

Drive around with Mike McHugh and you hear this kind of thing a lot:

"That building was built since I've been here. That building was built. . . . That one was built four or five years ago. . . . The ice cream machine guys moved down here from the Bronx — a 100-year-old-plus company."

McHugh said this last week, riding around the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport & Technology Center, showing how the place has changed since he was hired as Hernando County's economic development manager in 2002.

For example:

About 2,000 jobs have been generated from new or expanded businesses at the airport since 2002.

The number of companies that owned or leased buildings at the airport was 59 when McHugh arrived and is now 105.

Not long ago, just about all of those buildings were small, containing between 5,000 and 15,000 square feet of floor space. Now there's the Micro Matic USA beer tap factory that covers 80,000 square feet and a fence maker, Alumi-Guard, which is more than 2 1/2 times that size, and Accuform Signs, which last year announced plans to build a 300,000-square-foot building at the park.

This project will include widening a road — leading to the west side of the park — that didn't even exist 11 years ago. Neither, really, did the west side of the park; it was mostly just woods and fields.

The reason for pointing out all of this is not just to praise McHugh, who will leave his job this week to pursue other opportunities, though he definitely deserves some praise.

Besides recruiting businesses to the county, he helped lay the groundwork for future recruitment, pushing to make improvements at the airport and — by advocating for adult technical education — in the workforce.

And he realized the potential of projects that some people in his position might not.

I'm thinking here of developing the Chinsegut Hill manor house as a tourist draw and retreat center. I'm also thinking it takes a pretty unusual person to work effectively with both the house's main volunteer advocate, Christie Anderberg, who is all about preserving history and nature, and state Rep. Rob Schenck, who has never demonstrated much interest in either one. McHugh was able to convince Schenck to secure $1.5 million in state funding to restore the house.

So, if not to polish McHugh's resume, why am I bringing all this up?

Partly because the recent ugly controversy over the arrival of one new tenant at the airport, Corporate Jet Solutions, has obscured the much more attractive big picture. Economic development may have a long way to go in Hernando, but it's mostly headed on the right track.

I also bring this up because some people in the county are advocating not just a change of direction but a complete U-turn.

On Aug. 26, a representative of the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, bank executive Morris Porton, sent an email to County Administrator Len Sossamon suggesting that the job of bringing business to Hernando be turned over to a public/private group.

This is a terrible idea that would give more control over this function to a few business leaders who already have too much. Matter of fact, this looks a lot like a power grab by these same folks.

Also, it's been tried before, and it was not, as Porton wrote in his email, "quite successful."

It was a disaster.

About the only public part of the county's public/private Economic Development Commission was the taxpayer money it spent — more than $300,000 per year, or just about precisely as much as McHugh's office does now.

Not only didn't the EDC refuse to say how this money was being spent, it didn't produce much to show for it.

The EDC did, however, claim to get results, taking credit for projects that came in without its help, most notably the Sears store on State Road 50 near Mariner Boulevard.

What you notice now, looking back on this, is that attracting Sears really wasn't much of a victory. It didn't bring in large numbers of educated employees. Or particularly high-paying jobs. Or the kind of ripple effect the county likes to pursue these days — innovative companies that might draw compatible companies.

We've come a long way, in other words, and the last thing we need is to go back.

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