Al Higginbotham, the newly elected Hillsborough County Commission chairman, wants to spend the year focusing on job development. He should keep three strategies in mind:
Target tax breaks. Hillsborough voters gave the commission another tool in the November election by approving a tax break for new and expanding businesses. The measure allows the commission to exempt, on a case-by-case basis, some or all of the county portion of a business' property taxes for up to 10 years.
Two problems: The board has a history of aiming low in its job recruitment efforts, and it put the tax abatement to a vote before establishing criteria for what types of industries it was hoping to attract. Higginbotham and his colleagues need to aim the tax breaks at high-wage jobs that will build the economy for years.
Mine what's here. For all the talk about teaming up with the University of South Florida on a life sciences cluster or with MacDill Air Force Base on security-related industries, the county has a limited record of leveraging the community's major assets. It played a major role in facilitating a joint venture between Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center and pharmaceutical giant Merck. But the relationship with USF and MacDill needs to move from a broad conversation about overlapping interests to one that produces meaningful job gains.
The commission created a task force in 2009 to propose short- and long-term fixes for dealing with the recession, but the effort was late in starting, superficial and lacking in any real strategy. The county also has spent more time chronicling its weak points than committing to a plan for overcoming them. The county needs a vision for the future, the infrastructure for it to grow and home-grown skills to sustain it.
Get on a plane. Higginbotham has already talked excitedly about being the county's salesman in chief. He should realize that the Tampa Bay area has a new story to tell. As host of the 2012 Republican National Convention, and soon to be connected with high-speed rail, the region is building an identity beyond cheap land and the beaches. Businesses looking to expand need to have the bay area on their radar.
Higginbotham also needs to continue the bridge building that has occurred as the region's business leaders rallied behind Hillsborough's light-rail project. Though the measure failed in this tough economy, it brought together a new generation of civic leaders and a realization that the bay area is united by shared economic interests.