Friday, May 25, 2018
Business

Amazon bringing 1,000 jobs, new distribution center to Hillsborough

TAMPA — Amazon has completed the real estate deal needed to build a massive distribution center that will bring 1,000 permanent jobs as well as seasonal and construction work to Ruskin, Hillsborough County officials said Thursday.

The project's developer told the county by email that terms reached the day before clear the way for "immediate construction" of the $200 million, 1.1-million-square-foot "fulfillment center."

That ends a long, secretive odyssey, which had the county and state dangling millions of dollars in tax breaks to lure a facility officials hope will breathe life into a still-struggling corner of the community. Commissioners rushed to proclaim Amazon's arrival a done deal, though the company was silent Thursday.

"This is bigger than landing the Super Bowl, a National Convention or the Olympics," said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who represents Ruskin. "It's a mega-storm of growth that's hitting our county with feeder bands that will create economic growth all over this area.''

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. closed on the sale of the land to a subsidiary of insurance company USAA, which has obtained a long-term lease with Amazon to occupy the site. No opening date of the center has been set, though county officials have previously said the company would like to be open in time for the 2014 Christmas season, or by the following one at latest.

"I can't underscore enough the tremendous economic impact that will be realized in the South Shore community," Hagan said.

USAA Real Estate Co., under the name RELP Tampa, bought the nearly 80-acre site near Interstate 75 and State Road 674 in far southeastern Hillsborough for $14.6 million, county records show. The deal closed Wednesday. The facility will create 1,000 permanent jobs, including 375 positions that pay more than the state's average wage. The $200 million capital investment would make it one of the county's largest private-sector developments in years.

South Shore business boosters welcomed the news that their quiet corner of the county could become home to the first Florida distribution center run by the online retail giant.

"People are generally tired of South County having nothing down here," said Tony Zipperer, a lifelong resident and owner of Zipperer's Funeral Home. "This has to help. I don't see how anyone can see it as a negative."

Said Melanie Morrison, the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce's executive director: "It's a great, great thing. It's going to bring jobs to the community and hopefully it's going to bring spin­offs and bring others nearby, as well."

Amazon has been seeking to open distribution warehouses in Florida since at least late 2010 but stayed mum on how many and where. It's part of a larger national company warehouse-building strategy to get its goods closer to consumers for speedier delivery.

Gov. Rick Scott announced in June that Amazon would invest $300 million in new warehouses and hire 3,000 as part of a deal that ultimately will require its Florida customers to pay sales tax on purchases. Speculation pointed to sites in Hillsborough and Polk counties, both of which approved financial incentives to lure a warehouse.

In July, Hillsborough commissioners voted to waive half of the county portion of Amazon's property tax bill for the first seven years after it builds the center, or about $6.4 million total. In June, they approved $1.1 million to be paid in installments over four years in exchange for the company creating the 375 "well-paying" jobs. Those are defined as jobs paying at least $47,581 – 15 percent more than the average state wage.

The property, which has an agricultural tax exemption, now generates less than $2,000 in property taxes annually.

The Seattle-based retailer didn't respond to requests to confirm Thursday's announcement. Enterprise Florida spokesman Sean Helton said the state has been working closely with Amazon but had received no official word about its site selection.

"We are thrilled that Amazon is going to come to Florida, but we have not spoken with Amazon about the release of any additional information,'' he said.

Helton didn't know when a formal announcement would be made.

Polk County officials said they also had no new news about their Lakeland site. Commissioners approved a tax abatement plan in July that would cut $4.5 million from Amazon's tax bills over 10 years if it opened a distribution center in the county.

Establishing a physical presence in Florida would require Amazon to start collecting sales tax on items ordered in the state. Amazon customers in Florida currently aren't charged sales tax, frustrating some small retailers who say Amazon has an unfair price advantage.

The Florida Retail Federation estimates the state will collect $70 million to $80 million a year in sales tax from Amazon purchases made locally, a tiny fraction of sales tax receipts statewide but still a significant amount for a single company. Sales tax receipts totaled $18.5 billion in fiscal year 2012.

Opening fulfillment centers in Florida could open the door for same-day delivery in some areas. Amazon currently offers "local express delivery'' in 11 markets, including Boston, Chicago and Seattle, for orders placed by a certain time. Shipping rates are $3.99 for gift cards and $8.99 for other goods. Amazon Prime members can get certain items delivered the same day for $3.99.

Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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