Hillsborough County commissioners will be asked today to make a vote that is vital to the future of the county. It is a vote in part to decide whether to spend $6.25 million to subsidize a real estate development that includes Bass Pro Shops. More importantly, it is a vote that will decide if Hillsborough County economic development will finally leave the 1980s and enter the 21st century.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, big-box real estate deals were all the rage. Governments sought and subsidized them. Cronyism led politicians to make decisions in the best interests of their friends and campaign contributors instead of the public. While Pinellas County targeted high-tech, high-wage jobs that included defense contractors and medical device manufacturers, among others, Hillsborough targeted suburban retail and office parks filled with call centers and back-office operations.
The result is that the largest and most successful companies in Tampa Bay are in Pinellas County, not Hillsborough. Most are home-grown. Some relocated and grew here. While subsidized back-office operations like Salomon Brothers and Capital One packed up their jobs and moved to cheaper places, technology companies in Pinellas County grew to become world-class titans in their industries.
From 2001 to 2008, Tampa and Hillsborough County's economies grew, but that growth was based on a mortgage bubble that inflated the real estate market. When the market crashed in 2008, the community demanded that Hillsborough County finally diversify its economic base away from real estate and low-paying back-office jobs.
The Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation shifted focus, creating plans to grow other sectors. The Tampa Bay Partnership developed a much-needed regional business plan. Chambers of commerce and other groups sought to help startups and fast-growing companies. The port and airport modernized to finally engage a global audience.
Just when everything looked to be moving in the right direction, along came a proposal like those from the 1980s. Hillsborough County wants to spend $6.25 million to subsidize a shopping center.
Some points of clarity on this proposal:
• The jobs claimed to be created are not the kinds of jobs that most cities, states and countries target with taxpayer subsidies.
• There will be an increase in property tax revenues, but the same would be true with other targeted developments.
• Falkenburg Road doesn't need to be widened except for this project. It's not on the county priority list. Those that are won't get this funding.
• Palm River Road will enjoy a major extension. It will essentially be an internal road that will provide access for the eastern side of the property. Most developers pay for their own internal roads.
• The developer of the project and the anchor tenant are not headquartered in Tampa Bay nor do they have a major presence here. Subsidies should go to help local businesses or those that are relocating.
• This store will have few tourists. There are already two stores within a short drive. Why would someone from Orlando drive past their own store to shop in Tampa?
• Bass Pro may or may not help the surrounding community. Festival Bay Mall (where Bass Pro Shops is located in Orlando) has mostly empty stores.
• This project will not raise average wages in Hillsborough County and it will not help people move up the economic ladder.
• Mom and pop local stores will be hurt by this. It's not fair to pay an out-of-town developer to compete with locals.
Instead of going back to 1980s-style real estate development deals, Hillsborough County commissioners should focus on developing a comprehensive plan for growing the economy. That plan should guide wise and well-thought-out projects that accelerate the private sector's creativity and enthusiasm for success in the global market. To find a better model, commissioners can look around the world or they can look across the bridge.
Bill Carlson is president of Tucker/Hall, one of Florida's largest public relations firms, and serves on numerous state and local economic development organization boards. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.