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New economic plan "ambitious and aggressive," Hernando official says

BROOKSVILLE — There's no magic cure for Hernando County's economic woes.

But according to the county's business development director, Michael McHugh, getting different results will require different action.

At a workshop of the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday, McHugh will unveil the most far-reaching economic development plan he has ever put on the table.

"The board wanted it to be aggressive," he said. "It's ambitious and it's aggressive."

Charting a new course for the county's economic future — and decreasing Hernando's dependence on the home-building industry — will take time, investment and a cohesive effort from stakeholders and partners, McHugh said.

"The word investment is carefully chosen," he said. "Investments have varying degrees of return, and we don't know when we're going to get the return."

With the county's unemployment rate near 15 percent, there is agreement that something must be done.

"There's more desire to do this than there has ever been before," McHugh said.

His proposed plan emphasizes the need for research, initially starting with the current workforce.

"We need a deeper understanding of our community's workforce," McHugh said. "We need a deeper understanding of the unemployment. 14.9 is a number, but it doesn't tell me anything about how to solve it."

The plan urges more collaboration among educators at all levels to help decrease the dropout rate, and suggests consideration of the purchase or donation of land to attract additional higher-education facilities.

"I want people to think of the (high school) career academies and (Pasco-Hernando Community College) as being a part of our economic engine, a part of our economy," McHugh said.

New opportunities often emerge from small contacts — a cold call or a brief introduction. The proposed plan calls for researching which types of companies are a match for Hernando, and pursuing them through targeted industry trade shows or recruitment trips.

The plan recommends an increase in the marketing budget for the Office of Business Development, from $60,000 to $150,000. The funds will be used for cross-county marketing, and Web and social media tools.

The plan describes large, high-impact employers as the "highest hanging fruit" in terms of business attraction. Competition is fierce for those businesses. And while they should remain a focus, the county shouldn't squander all of its resources pursuing them, McHugh said.

"We've been successful with small businesses," he said.

And when small firms relocate here, he said, they often take a longer-term view and invest in the future of Hernando.

McHugh recommends the purchase of strategic parcels of business land, 100 acres or more, to attract large corporations along Interstate 75.

"Large employers are more analytical in their focus," he said. "They say, show me the research, show me the third-party documentation that you really have what we need. Plus, you will need to deliver me a site at no cost."

On Tuesday, McHugh will also present the anatomy of a high-impact deal, based upon the incentive package a company recently requested to relocate to the county.

In addition to bringing new industry to the region, the county needs to retain and nurture the companies it already has, McHugh said. According to the plan, 31 percent of new jobs over the last seven years have come from existing employers.

To help existing and future businesses, McHugh recommends spending about $25,000 to open a satellite office of the University of South Florida Small Business Development Center in the county.

He is also asking the board to consider increasing the economic development project reserve from $500,000 to $5 million over a period of three to five years.

Being cautious hasn't worked, McHugh said. Now the county needs to take aggressive action.

He said his office in the past has "tried to live within our means."

"It hasn't worked," he said. "We need to figure out what we need and ask for it."

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

Key economic development recommendations

• Retain, expand and nurture existing businesses.

• Expand marketing programs.

• Consider purchasing strategic parcel of business land along I-75 corridor.

• Pursue partnership with other partners to fund a satellite office of USF Small Business Development Center.

• Research targeted industries that are a good fit for Hernando and recruit.

New economic plan "ambitious and aggressive," Hernando official says 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 12:54pm]
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