They are familiar refrains. Hernando County needs to diversify its tax base. The economy depends too heavily on the home-building industry. There aren't enough good-paying jobs, and even if there were, the people who need jobs don't have the required skills.
All those statements are true, and the same laments have been heard for many years in counties and cities across Florida. But when the national economy is suffering, as it most certainly is now, the trickle-down effect on local communities is more pronounced. And in Hernando it is providing a clearer picture than ever that the county's reliance on raising rooftops is lowering opportunities and the quality of life for too many residents.
A recent Times report used statistical indicators to illustrate that point. Compared to all other Florida counties, Hernando had:
• The third-highest unemployment rate in April, at 6.6 percent.
• The fourth-highest rate of home foreclosures (one in 154) in May from the previous year.
• The second-highest increase in the number of households receiving food stamps from May 2007 to May 2008, at 58 percent.
• The fifth-highest jump in students receiving free or reduced-price school lunches from March 2007 to March 2008.
Hernando County exceeds the state average in all of those categories, and there is no sign that discouraging situation will change anytime soon.
But it is somewhat encouraging that the Hernando County Commission is showing renewed interest in the often-unnoticed function of the county's Office of Business Development. While discussing last week the possibility of lowering impact fees on new construction, the commissioners agreed to invite Mike McHugh, director of that office, to join them on July 15 when they continue their discussion of the impact fee proposal.
The commissioners weren't specific about why they wanted McHugh there, but presumably, they want to hear his assessment of this proposal, and have him share his observations about current economic development trends. Perhaps they will ask him if there is anything they can do to help him lure businesses, create jobs or otherwise stimulate the sluggish local economy. Or maybe they will surprise everyone and shower McHugh with their own ideas.
But if the commissioners are looking to McHugh to provide them with a magic fertilizer that will propagate the county's economy, their expectation is unrealistic. It has taken many years for this problem to grow and it likely will take years more to modify it.
Hernando has depended too long on population growth to carry its economy. Other than rock mining, there has been no significant contribution from the industrial sector. Changes in weather patterns and the increase in land values have calmed the once-thriving agricultural market. And even though the Airport Industrial Park has attracted a good number of small- to mid-size manufacturing companies in the past 25 years, the overall gain in new jobs has been modest. The result is that most people rely on service-related jobs in retail stores like Wal-Mart, which is the county's largest employer, governments, or delivering services, such as landscaping and health care.
The synergy created by real estate sales, home builders and construction trades have driven the local economy more than most counties, and when the market is in a slump like this one, it becomes apparent that Hernando is like a trapeze artist flying high above a safety net that has sizable holes. The question remains, what can Hernando County do to change that risky circumstance?
Hernando already offers a number of reasonable incentives to businesses that are considering locating or expanding their operations here. Those include abatements for property taxes, building permits and impact fees, and land-lease deals available at the airport site. All these are tied to performance-based requirements about the number of jobs a business actually creates, which is a prudent approach that protects the county and job-seekers from fly-by-night companies that would misuse such enticements.
Because Hernando has become a bedroom community, many of its most qualified workers commute to jobs in neighboring counties. Finding ways to keep them here is a core challenge, and the rising cost of fuel could work in the county's favor if it can attract businesses that value a home-grown work force.
But cultivating that work force must be, as McHugh advised the commission two years ago, a priority. Some progress has been made in that regard with the establishment of career academies at the county's public schools. Efforts to lower the drop-out rate of high school students and provide more specialized vocational training have helped, too. And, if the state funding remains intact, a new Spring Hill campus for Pasco-Hernando Community College should be another huge step forward. The availability at PHCC of selected four-year degree programs from Tampa Bay area universities also would be a boon.
But all of that has taken, or will take more, time. As the commission reacquaints itself with McHugh's mission and ponders ways to diversify its tax base and create jobs, it should keep in mind the essential components of any successful economic development effort: A vision, a blueprint and an educated, skilled work force to help achieve its goal.
Without that commitment, the familiar refrain is sure to stay the same.