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Hernando County Commission considers plan to boost economy

On March 3, 1932, the Hernando State Bank took out this ad in the Brooksville Journal:

"The WIFE says: I'VE HEARD lots of talk now for two years on the depression and it hasn't helped matters a bit! I tell my husband that we must close our ears to pessimistic chatter and have faith in the strength and ability of our country to emerge victorious — as it surely will. You Can't Talk Prosperity Back with Pessimism — Cheer Up!"

Eventually, things got better. And over the next eight decades, Hernando County experienced a series of economic bumps and dips, cresting in 2006 with the most recent housing boom. Then: silence.

The growth engine stopped.

Earlier this year, the Hernando County Office of Business Development presented an ambitious plan to restart Hernando's economy and bring prosperity back.

With home prices down significantly from a few years ago and unemployment at 15.6 percent, there is consensus that something must be done. The Hernando County Commission formally approved the majority of the plan in March.

The remaining unapproved elements of the plan — many tied to budgetary increases — will be further examined at Tuesday's commission workshop. Those include: an increase in the Office of Business Development marketing and research budget; additional reserves for economic development; community returns for economic development investments; acquiring or controlling parcels of land suitable for high-impact business, and attracting additional higher education and training facilities.

Business development director Michael McHugh originally requested an additional $90,000 for marketing and research, much of which was to be used to study the skills and strengths of the county's workforce, including commuters and those currently out of work.

Since his initial request, the Tampa Bay Partnership, of which Hernando County is a member, received word that it was in line for a large economic development grant to conduct a workforce study of the entire region.

"It looks like the partnership is going to get the grant," McHugh said. "If this grant goes through, we won't need the money to conduct our own study."

The new economic development plan places increased emphasis on collaboration between public, private and nonprofit agencies. And that has begun to pay off, McHugh said.

In addition to the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Office of Business Development is collaborating with the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board, the Pasco Economic Development Council and the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce to support a University of South Florida Small Business Development Center satellite office within the county.

One of the most controversial requests in the proposed plan was to increase the economic development reserve to $5 million over the next few years.

Commissioners said that would be difficult, but left open the possibility of finding money on a case-by-case basis. At Tuesday's workshop, they will likely discuss a process for managing such a request if needed to lure a high-impact company to the region.

If a new or relocating business would bring 100 high-wage jobs, there's a good chance that commissioners would consider going into the county's reserves to fund an incentive package, said commission Chairman John Druzbick.

"If we get 100 new jobs, those people will be buying homes, going shopping," Druzbick said.

But all of that depends on the impact of those high-wage jobs. McHugh will review a regional economic model at Tuesday's workshop that predicts the economic impact of new or expanded businesses.

It is also likely that McHugh will discuss replenishing the current reserve fund as incentives are paid out.

In addition, commissioners will discuss options for acquiring or controlling parcels of land suitable for high-impact companies. The industrial areas around the Hernando County Airport Park and the Interstate 75 corridor are frequently eyed as potential places for new industry.

"We have actually lost some deals because a deal could not be struck between the landowner and the business that wanted to come," Druzbick said.

While commissioners have expressed unease at the idea of purchasing land, they are likely to explore other options that would allow the Office of Business Development to control the land through upfront agreements with landowners.

"We need to be able to offer packages without any loose ends," McHugh said. "If you've got everything lined up, but you aren't sure about the land, it makes a difference."

A final unresolved topic for Tuesday's workshop is the long-term goal of securing land for additional higher education facilities.

"It's a tremendously important piece of economic development," Druzbick said.

McHugh said that element of the plan may take time.

It can take years to bring additional higher educational facilities to a region, he said, but the county has to start somewhere.

Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at slmarshall.sptimes@gmail.com.

Hernando County Commission considers plan to boost economy 04/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 12:51pm]
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