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Pinellas finds $2-million to lure defense company

Pinellas County leaders pledged $2-million Tuesday to entice a prosperous Massachusetts company to the Tampa Bay area even as they expect a tax revenue crunch to force them to lay off workers.

The money, from property taxes, is part of a larger $30-million incentive package for Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a nonprofit that works in defense and biotechnology. The state and local governments on both sides of the bay are waving dollars.

But the offers come at a difficult time.

Pinellas commissioners plan to cut 400 positions — half vacant, half filled — in next year's budget. The Sheriff's Office has shed more than 60 deputies. St. Petersburg said last month it would eliminate 51 positions, though most are vacant and layoffs aren't expected.

Choosing to subsidize a private company during such times isn't easy, county commissioners said.

But investing in the future is critical when the economic forecast is bleak, they said, and Draper is just the kind of company the Tampa Bay area needs.

"To go to one extreme would be to say do no economic development," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "And I think that would, in the short term, prevent some pain, but in the long term it would be detrimental."

St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County and the University of South Florida also are contributing to the incentive package. The biggest chunk, $15-million, comes from the state. Gov. Charlie Crist could release the funds near the end of the month.

Until he does and a few other hurdles are cleared at the local level, the deal won't be final.

If all goes according to plan, though, Draper would open satellite offices in St. Petersburg and at USF in Tampa, creating at least 165 high-wage jobs, plus bringing $50-million in research grants to the university. The laboratory plans to partner with SRI International, another high-tech giant in St. Petersburg.

By joining forces with existing biotechnology and defense companies and creating spinoff ventures, Draper could help lift the Tampa Bay economy to new heights, said Pinellas economic development director Mike Meidel.

Still, Meidel said there are no guarantees.

That's why the company will have to prove its commitment to the area and to job creation before realizing the full benefit of the government incentives. It's a calculated bet on the company, he said, with the potential for a huge payoff.

And either the Tampa Bay area is going to risk a big score or some other part of the country is, he said.

Draper is based in Cambridge, Mass. According to the nonprofit's most recently available filing with the IRS, Draper had total revenues of more than $387-million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006. The chief executive officer at the time was paid $580,000 a year.

Len Polizzotto, the lab's director for marketing and strategic business development, said that if the deal goes forward, Draper will deliver for Tampa Bay. He commended local leaders for the "strict performance milestones" they linked to the subsidies.

"I have to say elected officials were very careful with the money," Polizzotto said. "They weren't frivolous."

Before Draper can get its $2-million from Pinellas, it must sign a five-year lease in the county, secure the $15-million from the state and produce an invoice showing it has invested $5-million in equipment. And the lease must start by July 1, 2009.

If Draper leaves Pinellas before the lease expires, the county gets to keep $2-million worth of equipment. The goal is that at the end of the lease, the company will have created 65 jobs that pay 150 percent or more of the average wage in the county at the time.

If 60 or more jobs are created, Draper doesn't have to refund any of the money it gets from the county. If it creates fewer than 25 of the desired jobs, it has to repay the whole $2-million. Between the two extremes is a sliding scale: The more jobs created, the less money Draper has to refund.

Commissioners said that voters who approved property tax changes in January clearly want smaller local government and that layoffs, though tough, are part of what the public seeks. Yet when the chance to invest in high-wage jobs arrives, they said money should be made available. In future years, the county may be unable to offer such incentives, they said.

As for the county workers and deputies who are losing their jobs, some commissioners suggested that perhaps they'll find work at Draper.

"Maybe they will be one of the lucky ones to get these jobs," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Pinellas finds $2-million to lure defense company 07/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 6:04pm]
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