Hernando officials explore foreign-trade zone at airport

Officials are exploring how to become a foreign-trade zone to lure more businesses.
The Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport is exploring becoming a foreign-trade zone. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
The Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport is exploring becoming a foreign-trade zone.OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published April 25 2014
Updated April 25 2014

BROOKSVILLE — One can never have too many bells and whistles.

That is why, for the last several years, county officials have been working to provide as many features as possible at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport and Technology Center — to lure new businesses and retain existing companies.

Last week, during a report to the Hernando County Commission on economic development activity, the newest initiative was revealed: The airport is exploring how to become a foreign-trade zone.

Such a designation can only be given where a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility is provided. And the county's Aviation Authority voted last week to move forward with its effort to secure a customs facility.

A foreign-trade zone is a location where businesses can use special procedures that delay or reduce duty payments on foreign merchandise. That helps with economic development, helps and speeds international trade, encourages exports and creates employment opportunities, according to the FTZ website.

On Tuesday, County Administrator Len Sossamon, economic development supervisor Valerie Pianta and several other county officials will meet with a representative of the Tampa foreign-trade zone. Pianta said Hernando hopes to be a satellite of that.

"It would be a great marketing thing for us,'' she said. "It's another tool in our tool kit.''

She acknowledged that she is just beginning to learn about the designation. Hernando explored the idea before, but it was cost-prohibitive. More recently, the operation has become less expensive, maybe $12,500 a year, she said.

"If the taxes are mitigated or eliminated, a lot of positive things could come of it for our manufacturers,'' Pianta said.

The county plans to survey existing businesses at the technology center to find out which ones deal with international partners and so they can understand how the FTZ might help them.

At the Aviation Authority meeting, members were told that the hope would be that the customs office agent would also staff the FTZ office.

"We're really in learning mode right now,'' airport manager Kevin Daugherty told the authority.

Also during the meeting, the airport's master plan consultant, Philip Jufko of Michael Baker Jr. Inc., provided an updated feasibility study on the customs bureau proposal. After the latest calculating, he explained, providing a customs office could cost the airport $55,000 a year, but the cost would decline over time.

Since early April, when the feasibility study was first discussed, the authority has received letters of support from both of the airport's fixed-base operators and from both air ambulance services.

In a letter to Daugherty, Jet ICU president Michael Honeycutt said his company would benefit with "quicker response times to transport critically ill patients and increased sales due to the ability to offer lower quotations to consumers by decreased pilot duty time, fuel charges, landing fees and any additional airport fees.''

Customs also brings to the county several economic opportunities, Honeycutt noted — job creation, business recruitment, business expansion, business retention and increased tourism. In addition, it might make Hernando County more attractive to targeted industries and corporate headquarters, he wrote.

With Tampa growing north and the Hernando airport also growing, it is time to have customs availability locally, Corporate Jet Solutions vice president Bradley Dye wrote to Daugherty.

"With customs we can market to bring additional aviation-related industries to the area. Bottom line, if we sell more fuel, make our occupancy rate go up on motels and hospitals, provide greater revenue to service (providers) and merchants … it just makes good business sense.''

The County Commission is slated to hear the customs bureau proposal on May 13.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.