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Hernando County wants to cast a wider net to attract new jobs

BROOKSVILLE — At a time when voices throughout the community are clamoring for new jobs and economic diversification, county commissioners on Tuesday will hear their staff's plan to cast a wider net to attract new industries and expand existing ones.

The proposal includes loosening rules that blocked some industries from taking advantage of existing incentive programs, broadening the kinds of businesses Hernando could target and creating programs to make locating in the county even more attractive.

The idea has become a hot topic in recent months as the county's heavy reliance on jobs in the home-building industry has been cited as a big reason for Hernando's soaring unemployment and home foreclosure rates.

Commissioners asked business development director Michael McHugh to find a way to expand the county's list of lures to snag new business and to encourage existing businesses to expand.

Currently, the county offers special incentives to "targeted industries,'' which include clean manufacturing, financial and professional services, and information technology.

McHugh will propose more than tripling the list, adding the aviation and aerospace industry, corporate headquarters, emerging technologies, green technologies and energy, life sciences such as biotechnology and medical device manufacturing, research and development, and logistics, distribution and warehousing.

McHugh said he could see several of these areas becoming "good job generators.'' The area of green technologies was an idea generated by discussions with the County Commission and has gotten some national attention during the presidential campaign as having good potential, he said.

Adding the warehouse and distribution industry would be a good way to find more businesses of that type to locate in the Ridge Manor and Interstate 75 corridor near the Wal-Mart Distribution Center.

"That would mean good, quality jobs,'' McHugh said. "We want more of that industry. It's not an industry subject to offshoring.''

McHugh is also suggesting other changes with the existing incentives, such as extended incentives for aviation-related businesses at the airport and reducing the eligibility criteria for other programs. The requirement now for the impact fee incentive is that the business must offer jobs that pay 115 percent of the county's average wage. McHugh is proposing that the bar be dropped to 100 percent.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he strongly supports loosening the wage requirement because residents could only win if more jobs at the county's current average wage of $13.29 per hour were created closer to home.

McHugh has a calculator that can figure how much it would cost a worker to drive to and from their jobs every day. It determined that someone living in Spring Hill and driving to a job in Tampa every day was going to lose $4 to $5 each work hour to pay for that commute.

"Gosh, if we get an employer willing to pay $13 per hour here compared with another employer paying $18 an hour in Tampa, this would help our county and, for the worker, it keeps him working here at home,'' with about the same pay in his pocket, Stabins said.

Some of the other changes suggested in the incentive package reflect the changes in the market since the original incentive ordinance was approved by the County Commission five years ago.

"Back in 2003, we had very, very high occupancy rates in our buildings, and mostly we were building new for businesses,'' McHugh said. Incentives were focused on building permit fees and impact fees.

While those are still available, McHugh said the county should also focus on keeping the existing buildings full and helping companies that build new commercial buildings on speculation and those who might eventually run their businesses in those facilities.

Currently, there is 130,000 square feet of such speculative industrial space under construction in the area of the Hernando County Airport, McHugh noted.

"We want to have things in our toolbox to encourage people to come to whatever building, whatever site we have,'' he said.

That is why McHugh is proposing a new Job Creation Incentive Program. It would provide a cash grant for net job creation in the county to be paid over a five-year period.

A targeted industry could get up to $2,000 for every job created that pays at or above the county's average wage, up to $3,000 per job created that pays at 115 percent of the average wage and up to $3,000 for every job created at the average wage within the Brooksville Enterprise Zone.

McHugh said he hopes that extra push for businesses looking at the enterprise zone brings some development to the south Brooksville area.

"We'd like to see more happening there,'' he said.

McHugh also is suggesting that the county work with his office to coordinate capital improvement projects in areas that would help new businesses. Roads, water and sewer are all critical to businesses looking for a site.

"I promise you that, if we don't do that, it's going to be a huge barrier to development,'' he said.

If the County Commission approves the recommendations, commissioners will still have a say on the incentive packages offered to individual industries as they come. At that point, they will have plenty of economic analysis from McHugh's office, which they can use to make their decisions, he said.

All of the incentives are performance-based, meaning that a business must open and provide the jobs it promises to provide and meet the county's criteria before it is awarded any incentive money.

Businesses will get that bonus "after they have demonstrated that they have done what they said they would do,'' McHugh said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County wants to cast a wider net to attract new jobs 10/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 6:25pm]
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