Saturday, April 21, 2018
Business

Once celebrated, Colt deal appears on verge of ruin

KISSIMMEE — The warehouse off Florida's Turnpike is renovated and waiting. The parking lot has a fresh coat of blacktop and the building has new, blue awnings. There's even a white "C" — for Colt's Manufacturing Co. — painted above the front door.

But two years after Colt promised to bring 63 jobs to the state, the jobs are still not here, Colt officials have largely stopped talking and taxpayers are so far on the hook for about $550,000.

"We were ready to turn it over, then things got a little quiet with them," Osceola County Commission Chairman Frank Attkisson said.

The Colt deal, including $250,000 in state funds spent on the warehouse renovation, is one of 342 orchestrated by Gov. Rick Scott and his staff that were examined by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.

Despite an agreement between Colt and the state, it's unclear if the company — a Connecticut maker of handguns — will ever move into the Osceola County warehouse. The gun manufacturer has until Dec. 31 before the deal is abandoned.

Company officials would not return calls left by the Times and Herald, and local officials say they have been left in the dark.

It's a stark contrast to two years ago, when Scott gleefully introduced the Colt expansion at a Kissimmee news conference.

"It's a great day here," Scott told the crowd, standing in front of hay bales and a pair of horse saddles. Local officials and state lawmakers, including then-Senate President Mike Haridopolos, smiled in navy Colt polo shirts.

"Colt's going to add 63 jobs. Average salary is $45,000, and they are going to make a $2.5 million commitment," Scott said. "And it will be great when you see it with a Florida city or county name on it." There was talk of building a Colt museum.

But looking back, Attkisson remembers something odd: Colt representatives, including president M. William Keys, did not want to talk. Colt also never said how it was going to use the warehouse or workers.

Nevertheless, the state wrote a $250,000 check to help Osceola County pay for the building renovations and additional money to help with workforce training. The county also agreed to let Colt use the 16,000-square-foot warehouse nearly rent free to start and offered nearly $300,000 in incentives.

It's not entirely clear what happened between then and now, and why the deal appears on the verge of ruin.

The gun manufacturing industry is important to the state of Connecticut, and the company likely faced union pressure and counteroffers to keep it from moving a segment of its business elsewhere.

The national picture might also have affected Colt's decision. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., occurred a year after the Colt deal was announced in Florida and right as the warehouse renovation was wrapping up.

Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope, whose agency helped strike the deal with Colt, said a "big management shakeup" at the company changed the dynamic.

"We continue to talk to Colt," Swoope said. And if the company hasn't started hiring by the end of the year, "we'll go back and take actions."

Colt must create eight jobs in Osceola by the end of the year or it will owe the state $50,000 plus interest, officials say. If the agreement is terminated, Colt will owe the state $250,000 plus an undetermined penalty.

Attkisson says he believes the investment of local taxpayers will be protected even if Colt doesn't show up this month. The money spent renovating the warehouse will allow county officials to offer the space to someone else move-in ready.

But he also said there are lessons to the Colt deal. Attkisson wished he had asked more questions and that he had insisted on more concrete facts before the Colt papers were signed.

Those warning signs got lost in the euphoria two years ago.

On providing incentives, Scott said back then, "we're looking (at) whether we're going to get a return for the taxpayers of our state. So they'll come back in increased taxes for the state. That's what we focus on … there will be a return for the taxpayers of the state."

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Tia Mitchell at [email protected]

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