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To create more jobs, Hernando needs both big and small employers

You get so used to timid, bureaucratic language in county reports that bold statements stand out. Especially if — like the following — they might really be true:

"The preeminent issue facing our county is the creation of high-skill, high-wage jobs.''

Of course, we've all seen how economies that live on housing flatline when the market goes bust.

But, remember, even the boom wasn't all that great. In 2005, an economist found that if Hernando were viewed separately rather than as part of the Tampa Bay area, its average wage would be at the very bottom of the nation's 361 metropolitan areas.

So "preeminent issue'' sounds right, and it's too bad the County Commission didn't respond with equal boldness to the report where that phrase appeared — business development director Mike McHugh's plan to attract what one commissioner called "big boys,'' companies bringing between 300 and 500 well-paying jobs.

But this was also in McHugh's report, which he presented to the commission Tuesday: When it comes to drawing smaller businesses, and keeping the ones already here happy and growing, Hernando has been doing pretty well.

I figured the owners of these businesses might have a better idea than anyone of what Hernando offers companies and what it needs to attract more of them.

So why not ask them a few relevant questions?

Do we need a University of South Florida satellite campus?

Polk County is getting one, partly because it offered free land. McHugh's suggestion that we do the same — a great idea, I thought, especially because the county might find cheap property in this market — didn't merit even a minute of commission discussion.

Several business owners and executives said a USF campus might not help much right away. R&M American Marine Products, for example, which moved to the Airport Industrial Park a year ago, builds interior fittings for ships, said president J.B. Bowles. The local labor market — saturated with out-of-work carpenters, plumbers and tile layers — suited it perfectly.

But why don't we need more educated workers?

Well, maybe because high-tech companies take a look at the county's work force and see, for example, that the percentage of our residents with bachelor's degrees is about half the national average — and then decide to go elsewhere.

"Most of the skills required in Hernando County are very basic,'' said Jeff Fielder, owner of Condenser Products on U.S. 41 near the Hernando County Airport. "Basic,'' of course, equals low-paying, and his laborers start at about $8 per hour, not including health insurance and other benefits he provides.

Pasco-Hernando Community College has never been able to help him fill openings for more technically demanding jobs, Fielder said, and luring skilled workers to Hernando from large cities can be difficult. When his current computer guru retires, probably in the next few years, he said, "I don't know what I'm going to do.''

How do we keep jobs?

Inertia helps. Condenser, which expanded its operation in 2006, and Accuform Signs, which has grown fast enough that it has recently taken over an additional 10,000-square-foot building in the Airport Industrial Park, have both stayed put for the same basic reason: Loyal, longtime employees don't want to move.

But Accuform president Dave Johnson also said the county's business development office quickly found space to lease when the company needed it. And Accuform is an example of how infants can grow to nearly big-boy status. Founded more than 30 years ago, it now employs 225.

Does the county pay attention to small and medium-sized businesses?

Apparently. As an old newspaper cynic, it pains me to praise county employees, but I heard a lot of good things about Business Development program coordinator Valerie Pianta.

R&M's German owners wrote to all 67 Florida counties, Bowles said. Hernando was one of only three that responded, and Pianta was able to immediately sell it on Hernando's reasonable costs and easy access to highways and the Port of Tampa.

When Charles Bennett, owner of a premium car wax maker, Zymol, moved his company to Brooksville last year, Pianta handled every detail — finding an apartment for his family, a mover for his company, a forklift to rent and, when he couldn't get it into his new building, a towing company that could.

"Every step of the way, Valerie was intervening for us,'' Bennett said.

Will this personal approach disappear if the department commits to chasing big boys?

That's what Gus Guadagnino, owner of Joni Industries, asked at Tuesday's workshop. "Big fish eat little fish all day long,'' he said, and recommended the county focus on what it does best — attracting small and medium-sized businesses and using the connections of current entrepreneurs to do it.

But when I asked other business owners about abandoning the pursuit of big boys for little ones, most of them asked me this: Why not do both?

Hernando, with its airport, needs to draw a regional airline or an air freight company, Bennett said.

That's an obvious example of how drawing industry would bring in more industry and help what is already here. Another example, he said, is a company planning to bottle rum in Hernando. Pianta referred it to Bennett, who has a sideline in marketing.

"It's called symbiosis,'' Bennett said. "No approach has to exclude anything else. Let's try to make all of this work.''

Hear that, commissioners?

To create more jobs, Hernando needs both big and small employers 02/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2010 8:24pm]
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