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Pasco officials sweat release of T. Rowe Price news

Influential Realtor Dewey Mitchell knew the location but not the right industry. County Commissioner Ted Schrader knew the job count but not the company's name. State Rep. Will Weatherford knew the name but not the specifics of a proposal.

Most Pasco power brokers knew only fragments about efforts that began this summer to lure a major company and up to 1,650 jobs to Pasco County. The wooing was so top-secret it had even earned a code name: "Project Comet."

But the secret got out Monday, when the Times revealed the proposal for T. Rowe Price to move 425 jobs from its Tampa investment center to Land O'Lakes — and potentially expand to add another 1,200 positions.

It's the big deal that county officials have coveted for decades. But release of the news stoked anxiety among some officials: What if the company gets cold feet now?

At 12:01 p.m. Tuesday, Pasco Economic Development Council executive director Mary Jane Stanley e-mailed the entire County Commission and top county officials. Having earlier declined to comment to the Times on the project, her e-mail asked that any questions from the press go to her.

"The story in today's paper could kill any chance we had for this or any future economic development projects," Stanley wrote to county officials. "I am trying to do the best I can with damage control."

Trey Starkey, a developer and PEDC board member, said he has heard from economic development experts, including those at a recent conference, that the premature release of information about a big business seeking incentives to relocate can kill a project.

"My understanding is that when this stuff gets out, it blows the deal big time," he said.

By disclosing details to competitors, he said, "it makes it harder for governments to put together stimulus packages."

In T. Rowe Price's case, negotiations involve at least $14-million in publicly paid incentives by the state and the county, and possibly millions of dollars worth of other grants and credits on construction costs. Even the prior approval of a hotel on the proposed 260-acre site is included, developers and county officials said.

But chief deputy county administrator Michele Baker declined to comment or to provide more specifics on the offer because a confidentiality agreement with the company is in effect.

Schrader and other officials acknowledged fears that Hillsborough County would be awakened to join the hunt for T. Rowe Price's expansion, along with presumed out-of-state competitors. Even Commissioner Michael Cox, who provided details about the deal Monday without naming the company, clammed up a day later.

The stakes are big. The center would mean a $190-million investment by a Fortune 1,000 company (ranked 831 this year) on State Road 54, east of the Suncoast Parkway. Even with the financial system in turmoil, the company appears strong, Commissioner Jack Mariano said.

Pasco would finally land a whale — a big, well-known employer with high-grade jobs, specifically investment brokers.

Or the proposal could death-spiral into Pasco being outbid, as happened in 2006 when Hillsborough outgunned Pasco for the Moffitt cancer research center's expansion.

"I'm just hopeful Hillsborough isn't scurrying around trying to scuttle a proposal that's been in the works for a long time," Schrader said.

Tampa and Hillsborough government officials did not respond to calls Tuesday seeking comment on any rival bid. If anything, state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, took comfort that T. Rowe Price had little space near its Westshore location for a big expansion. And Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, suggested the gain for Pasco is relatively a smaller loss for bigger Hillsborough.

"This has been the best news to hit our economic development community," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, though she still had not heard about all the details.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco officials sweat release of T. Rowe Price news 09/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 2:27pm]
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