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Pasco seeks to bolster its financial services presence with Raymond James

The secret got out Tuesday: Raymond James Financial has its eyes on either Pasco or Hills­borough for a future satellite campus possibly big enough to employ more than 1,000 people.

Less than 24 hours later, along came a Tampa mayoral candidate announcing his idea to bring the firm to the city's old armory site.

That proposal may turn out to be of no interest to Raymond James. But the speed with which it was delivered feeds into one of the concerns of Pasco officials working to bring big employers to the county:

Will Hillsborough try to outmuscle us? Again?

That happened most publicly nearly four years ago when the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute considered a major expansion in Pasco — a project so promising that Pasco officials tentatively lined up more than $15 million in incentives — but ultimately picked a site in Hillsborough.

"We were a bridesmaid," said Ann Hildebrand, chairwoman of the Pasco County Commission . "But, hopefully, this time we'll be the bride."

She and others say circumstances have changed since then. For one, they didn't have a $2 million fund set aside for job recruitment. And they have since landed a big fish: T. Rowe Price , the Baltimore-based financial giant, which plans to build an office complex off State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes.

"T. Rowe just provided some validation," said Eric Schoessler, managing partner of Amprop , the developer of Long Lake Ranch, where T. Rowe purchased land.

"The corporate real estate guys weren't looking up here for office product," he said. "When T. Rowe finally started to close, people started to go, 'Why did they pick that site?' "

The Suncoast Parkway Suncoast Parkway was a huge factor, he said, "and they also realized Pasco has really turned the corner and that they're serious about these kind of users."

(He declined to say whether Raymond James was also looking at land on that property.)

Pasco economic development officials have been mum on the specifics of their dealings with Raymond James, although Hildebrand and Commissioner Ted Schrader confirmed the county is working on a proposal to attract the firm.

Wiregrass Ranch and parcels near T. Rowe's future campus on State Road 54 in Odessa are possible locations, officials have said.

Hillsborough's economic development director, Gene Gray, declined to say whether officials there were also working on a proposal.

The firm's search for land began to emerge Monday after state Rep. Will Weatherford , R-Wesley Chapel, told a gathering of business leaders in east Pasco that the county was working to lure a major, unnamed firm.

County officials and Weatherford clammed up on the firm's identity, but on Tuesday, Raymond James, after receiving an inquiry from the St. Petersburg Times, confirmed it is considering a second location.

The St. Petersburg firm expects the move to accommodate growth and provide a more hurricane-resistant location for some of its operations such as its information technology office.

Former Pasco Commissioner Michael Cox said he cold-called Raymond James' then-chief executive Tom James soon after T. Rowe Price committed to Pasco in 2009. He introduced himself and invited the company to visit Pasco. "It planted a seed," he said.

He said the biggest hurdle is to get the corporate leaders to drive up to Pasco, particularly if they, like Raymond James leaders, are looking for land outside of an evacuation zone.

"One of the things I don't think they realized is that this area from the Suncoast on and out is 5 feet above sea level," he said.

Cox said the effort might have faded, but for Weatherford, the rising 2012 House speaker, who has met with Raymond James representatives.

"I think what pushed it over is Will," Cox said. "He's got the clout."

Hildebrand, who sits on the board of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority , emphasizes Pasco's role as an emerging regional player. She has promoted, for instance, a tri-county referendum on light rail in coming years.

To distinguish itself in the region, Pasco has long touted its available land and its lower tax rates. Commissioners are looking at proposals that would lower the relatively high impact fees, though one initial plan shifted those costs by raising gas taxes and imposing $50 fees on property owners.

"I look at it as prospecting and we've been prospecting quite a while," she said. "Some of the successes we've had you build on those. And those things don't just happen overnight."

Many figure Moffitt used Pasco to negotiate a better deal with Hillsborough. County Administrator John Gallagher said Pasco got something out of it: More experience in negotiating with big businesses, a better feel for balancing between incentives and return.

Gallagher said he could never get comfortable with the one-time Moffitt deal, because he didn't think the tax base payoff — the cancer center is a nonprofit — justified the level of incentives. With T. Rowe, which got $30 million in both state and county incentives, he said felt more at ease.

"People say to me, 'You're being used,' " he said. "I don't mind being used because every time you do, you get the experience."

Raymond James has said it could make a decision by this summer.

"Everybody is trying to woo and court them and would like them on their soil," said Hilde­brand. "Why not us?"

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco seeks to bolster its financial services presence with Raymond James 01/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 3:16pm]
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