CLEARWATER — If three makes a trend, then Clearwater's economic development team might be riding a hot hand.
In recent weeks, General Electric and two local companies, Heritage Property and Casualty and MarineMax, have pledged to bring hundreds of jobs to Tampa Bay's third-largest city.
For many years, Clearwater Beach and downtown got most of the new development in the city. Consider Beach Walk, the Sandpearl and Hyatt resorts, and the Water's Edge and Station Square condo towers.
But after a prolonged recession, the economic development staff has turned its focus to the U.S. 19 commercial corridor on the east side of the city, and as recent announcements show, the effort is bearing fruit.
"The city has been heavily dependent on residential property taxes. This will broaden the city's tax base to create a better balance," said Geri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's director of economic development and housing.
At a work session Monday, City Council members praised Lopez and her assistant director, Denise Sanderson, for their latest success: sparking the rebirth of a sparsely occupied office complex at 2600 McCormick Drive off U.S. 19 north of Sunset Point Road.
Both Heritage and MarineMax plan to set up shop in the office complex.
Heritage will relocate its corporate headquarters from St. Petersburg to the McCormick Drive complex, bringing along 54 jobs with a promise to create 11 more next year. Average annual wages would exceed $87,000.
A sister company, Skye Lane Properties, plans to spend nearly $6 million improving the property, including building a three-level parking garage. Three years ago, the Achieva Credit Union passed on the McCormick Drive site and eventually moved its headquarters to Dunedin, in part because of a lack of parking on the property, Lopez told the council.
The city plans to exempt Heritage from an estimated $168,472 in real and tangible property taxes over a 10-year period.
Heritage was criticized earlier this year when it received $52 million in a deal with taxpayer-funded Citizens Property Insurance. Heritage had donated $110,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign before the deal to take a portion of Citizen's policies was approved by Citizens' board.
MarineMax, a recreational boat and yacht retailer, promises to invest $2 million in new office equipment and add 30 new employees over a three-year period when it relocates to the McCormick Drive complex.
The average wage for those new jobs will exceed $65,000, city officials said.
In exchange, the city will exempt half of the company's personal tangible property taxes for five years, an estimated $18,661.
MarineMax is already located in Clearwater, something that initially bothered Mayor George Cretekos until he learned that the company, which was leasing space at its current location, wasn't able to expand there and had considered leaving the city for new digs.
The incentives are "setting the stage for future development along U.S. 19," said Sanderson.
The city's financial incentive "tool box" was enhanced by Clearwater voters in 2012. The city first used these incentives last month when it reeled in 263 jobs and a reported $49 million investment from GE, which relocated the positions from New York.
On Monday, the council was unanimous in its support of the incentives. The relatively small tax breaks would be rewarded with nearly 100 high-paying jobs, they said. They also praised Skye Lane for building the parking garage.
The council is expected to formally approve the incentives at Thursday's meeting.
"This has been a priority of the council to do something along U.S. 19," Cretekos said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago