Signs of economic life are emerging, finally, in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. But each one faces special challenges in clawing out of the recession.
Pinellas is trying to figure out how a massive suburban county can appeal in the long run to the coming wave of creative, smart workers who tend to thrive in urban settings and desire high-density perks like quality mass transit.
Hillsborough's hurdle is trying to still appeal as a relocation county to major corporations looking for sweeping campuslike properties when large tracts of land are harder to find.
And Pasco, after mending some of the internal county wars between east Pasco and west Pasco, ponders how to market itself anew to businesses that may have dated perceptions of the fast-changing county.
These insights and more emerged in remarks offered up by the top economic development officials of these three counties.
Mike Meidel, 51, has served since 2004 as Pinellas County's economic development director. Keith Norden, 58, became chief executive at the start of 2009 of Tampa's Committee of One Hundred, which has since morphed into the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. And John Hagen, 60 and the newest arrival of the three, joined the Pasco Economic Development Council as CEO in January.
The three spoke to the Florida Gulfcoast Commercial Association of Realtors. Here are excerpts from those remarks and interviews with the Times.
All three of you say you are seeing signs of economic life recently. What signs?
Meidel (Pinellas): We are seeing more activity from serious people with money to spend. But it is also very short term. We used to hear about projects three years in advance. Now we often don't know anything until we end up on some company's short list for relocation or expansion. Right now, we have four projects with incentives in the works with the possibility of 200 jobs.
Norden (Hillsborough): It is picking up. We have already closed 10 projects since January that promise just under 1,500 jobs over the next several years. Two more projects are open and, if they close, mean 200 more jobs. Last year, we closed a total of 12 projects.
Hagen (Pasco): It's not so much the quantity as the quality of companies that are coming to us now. The inquiries are more serious.
What's happening in Pasco, and how are you becoming more competitive?
Hagen (Pasco): I came here from Surprise, Ariz., as a change agent. Pasco, with help from the Urban Land Institute, is going through an overhaul in county zoning and permitting. We are pulling together the private sector. Before it was east Pasco vs. west Pasco, but now they are starting to talk to each other. The county's discussing two industrial projects now. We are trying to transform the county.
In Hillsborough, you're still making the transition from what was the Committee of One Hundred, the Tampa Chamber of Commerce affiliate, to the Tampa Hillsborough EDC. How's that working out?
Norden (Hillsborough): I still get stopped to explain why we reorganized. A survey found that the Committee of One Hundred needed to be more proactive recruiting businesses. We separated from the chamber and now have space with Tampa Bay & Co. (the county tourism agency). Tampa's mayor and the chair of the country commissioners are now on our board, but we are also starting to allow more private sector involvement. Our mission is to create higher-paying jobs and identify industries from the region and internationally.
What kinds of businesses are talking expansion in Pinellas?
Meidel (Pinellas): Some with business headquarters. Some are manufacturing. Some are business services. It's a range. What we see in common are companies that have cash on hand. People were sitting on cash, and some are starting to invest in themselves. Their boards are saying, "We want returns on our money." On the other hand, financing remains tough.
What's changed the most about Pinellas economic development?
Meidel (Pinellas): Five years ago, we were worried about running out of available land in Pinellas for business expansion. Now that is not a problem. We typically have three to five properties ready to show interested companies. And many existing companies are consolidating, finding better space and saving money.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.