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Pasco County leaders turn to economic gardening to help local businesses grow

When financial giant T. Rowe Price paid $13.5 million in June for land for an office complex expected to bring 1,600 jobs to Pasco County, a cheer went up from government and business leaders.

And though they applauded T. Rowe Price, they recognized that such large-scale victories don't come along often.

"You might not get something that provides 1,500 jobs for another 15 years," said County Administrator John Gallagher, although he thinks T. Rowe will definitely generate some spin-off.

What to do in the meantime? Economic development leaders are turning to economic gardening, a concept that is aimed at nurturing existing businesses and helping entrepreneurs turn good ideas into bigger businesses that create wealth and jobs. It's a far cry from the days when economic development meant luring away another town's employer with taxpayer-funded goodies.

"The old strategy was you buy them and pay for them," said Tom O'Neal, who is heading the state's new economic gardening technical assistance program at the University of Central Florida and will be a guest at the county's workshop on the topic Monday at Pasco-Hernando Community College's west campus. (Registration for the event has already closed.)

The Legislature earlier this year passed a pilot program that provides $8.5 million for short-term, low-interest loans and $1.5 million for technical assistance. The $1.5 million pays experts to review applications for the loans and to offer marketing help and other assistance to fast-growing businesses in the state that are seeking to expand.

"The underlying theme is that they are nimble and flexible and able to respond to new opportunities," said Denise Sanderson, business retention and expansion manager for the Pasco County EDC. An example of such a business in Pasco is Dais Analytic, which recently announced a $200 million deal to export its air filtration system to China. The contract is expected create 1,000 new jobs.

"We want to make sure we have the resources available to assist them."

O'Neal said the approach is necessary because too many areas put all their eggs in the construction industry basket. It was first developed in Littleton, Col., about 20 years ago after an economic meltdown there.

"Florida's been doing this (relying on growth) for a long time. At some point, it's not sustainable. You'll fill up at some point and the jobs will go away."

Economic gardening works by helping communities grow their own companies. It targets what's known in business circles as "Stage 2 companies," firms that have become established but are poised for dramatic growth.

An example of a targeted company is Novus Biologicals, a Colorado firm that produced proteins and other material for research labs.

To expand, the company's CEO needed the ear of directors for the country's top 10 research labs.

"The guy was stuck. They couldn't get past the guards at the gate," O'Neal said.

Help from an economic gardening program helped Novus develop a strategy using the social network Twitter.

"Now they have a new office in England," O'Neal said.

One of the advantages of communities growing their own businesses is that the companies often are loyal to their hometowns, he said. When it comes time to make philanthropic donations, the decision-makers tend to favor communities where their headquarters are rather than satellite offices. And if layoffs become necessary, they are less likely to fire those in the home office.

"We heard about economic gardening awhile back and have been intrigued by it," said Peter Buczynsky, president of Micron PharmaWorks Inc., a 4-year-old Odessa-based manufacturer of machines that make blister packs for pharmaceuticals.

He said the company has some possible products that would result in the addition of new a division but faces limitations. One of those is a qualified labor pool. The firm wants to develop an apprenticeship program to cultivate talent.

He hopes to see what economic gardening could do to help his company grow.

"We're not looking for a handout," he said. "We are trying to see what makes sense."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Pasco County leaders turn to economic gardening to help local businesses grow 11/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 14, 2009 3:23pm]
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