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What's the cost to improve Hernando County's economy?

BROOKSVILLE — It was aggressive, and for the most part, well received.

At last week's Hernando County Commission workshop, business development director Michael McHugh presented an ambitious plan to boost Hernando County's economic fortunes.

With the county near 15 percent unemployment, representing about 9,400 out-of-work residents, the urgency to diversify the economy has never been greater.

County commissioners found much to like in the new plan and requested that McHugh return at some point with a version that incorporates their suggestions and addresses their concerns.

The heart of the plan is to learn more about the county's workforce, research companies that could be a good fit for Hernando, a better alignment among the various partners, and improve communications between the office of business development and the Pasco Hernando Workforce board.

The focus is to take a lot of what already is being done and to make it work much better.

Most of the proposed improvements won't cost anything. Instead, they represent a focused commitment from the partners in and out of government, from the Hernando County School District to Hernando Progress.

"To make this plan work … I felt I needed to gather those players together and ask them to pull on the rope with us," McHugh said. "The more people pulling, the better."

One item that could require financing was the possible purchase of a parcel of business-zoned land along the Interstate 75 corridor. Commissioners were eager to suggest ways to lure potential companies to that site without the county having to buy the land.

One idea for managing the cost of this would be to pursue an up-front, prenegotiated price from landowners, said Commission Chairman John Druzbick.

Another suggestion was implementing so-called "bird dog fees," in which existing businesses entice suppliers to consider moving to Hernando County, said Commissioner Dave Russell. Free rent may be one way to provide this, he added.

Commissioners also agreed that there should be emphasis on finding ways to support existing businesses and encourage smaller "mom-and-pop" start-ups.

And everyone was concerned about saving money. "People are really struggling right now," said Commissioner Jim Adkins.

When it comes to going after high-impact industry, some members of the commission had concerns.

"I just don't believe that it is realistic for us to compete with Charlotte, North Carolina, or Atlanta or even the Raleigh-Durham area," Commissioner Jeff Stabins said.

"We're Division III. Think of college football. We're not a Division I football team. We're a fine Division III."

But, for the moment at least, Hernando is playing in the big leagues.

Russell spoke of a high-impact company, one with 300-plus, high-wage jobs, that is considering moving to Hernando. He called the potential deal "sunburn."

"This was shopped around all over the country," Druzbick said. "We're in the top three."

The Office of Business Development gets one to two inquiries a year from high-impact companies, program coordinator Valerie Pianta said. These companies frequently demand anonymity and have a long list of requests.

In today's competitive market, enticing companies such as "sunburn" or even smaller companies takes a variety of incentives, McHugh said. One of the proposed plan requests is to increase the economic development project reserve to $5 million from $500,000.

While not a popular idea with commissioners, there seemed to be consensus that high-impact companies, even those with steep incentive demands, could be considered on an individual basis.

"We're not completely nixing the idea," Russell said. "But on a case-by-case basis, we can consider general reserves and maybe there will be potential for a legislative match."

For the "sunburn" initiative, the office put together a $30 million package from a range of state and local dollars, said Russell. It can be done, he added.

McHugh's office has been asked to develop a matrix, a tool that outlines the costs and benefits of luring a high-impact company to the region.

The matrix would be a more formal way to provide quantifiable information, Russell said. "So we can go back to the tax-payers and justify our actions," he added.

"If it's a good opportunity and brings jobs, sure, you want to put some money behind it," Commissioner Rose Rocco said. "I'm optimistically cautious. I really want to see the cost-benefit analysis."

Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at slmarshall.sptimes@gmail.com.

What's the cost to improve Hernando County's economy? 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 11:45am]
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