If Hernando County commissioners are serious about improved industrial recruiting and diversifying an economy too reliant on home-construction and services, now is an appropriate time to show it. A commitment to better the local job outlook while expanding the tax base is more complicated than marked-down impact fees, cash-for-jobs created, no-new-tax pledges or free gift cards to spend with local merchants. It requires resolve to invest significantly in research, education, real estate and an incentive package to compete both regionally and nationally.
Those ideas are contained in an extensive economic strategy from Business Development Director chief Mike McHugh and comes just weeks after commissioners identified working within a constrained budget and job creation as two top priorities for 2010.
Balancing those two tasks amid previously spouted election-year pledges to hold the line on taxes will require serious deliberations and public debate beyond affordability. That so much of Tuesday's workshop discussion focused on a marketing campaign aimed at branding the county — "Gateway to Tampa Bay'' versus "People, Places Progress Hernando County'' — is indicative of an easily distracted commission that must direct its attention on more substantive issues. For instance:
• Acquisition of land for a higher education site. Commissioners, a majority of whom are supporting a regional development in the county's northern tier called Quarry Preserve, should ponder the applicability of extracting donated land for a college campus from that or another large-scale development proposal.
McHugh envisions being able to offer to a university what Polk County did for the University of South Florida. USF Polytechnic is opening a new campus in northeast Lakeland in 2012 and it is expected to be a major economic driver in creating high-wage jobs in clean industries.
• Increasing a $500,000 economic development reserve fund to $5 million over the next several years. Even though the county is again confronting a projected multimillion-dollar shortfall and plans to tap reserves to help balance its 2011 budget, commissioners shouldn't pay short shrift to this idea. If nothing else, the county should aim to match Pasco County's $2 million account established to offer incentives to targeted industries bringing high-wage jobs. Commissioners also shouldn't shy away from lobbying Florida legislators for a state appropriation to match their own account.
• With that budget crunch looming for the foreseeable future, the county probably can't act on one of McHugh's suggestions — acquiring privately owned land to reserve for industrial development. There are 500 acres already identified as commerce sites — both at the Hernando County Airport and private land near Interstate 75 — that will have to suffice. Bringing the private land into public domain is not essential at this time.
• Identifying its workforce. Hernando County's unemployment rate hit nearly 15 percent in December, yet McHugh's office can't pinpoint if those workers (approximately 9,500 people) worked and resided in Hernando, lived here and commuted elsewhere for employment, or lost a job in a northern locale and ended up in Hernando with family or friends. Having accurate data to offer to potential new businesses is imperative in successful industrial recruiting.
McHugh is correct when he acknowledges the relatively poor timing of his expansive ideas. But, even if such a plan had been presented during a robust economic climate, the reception likely would have been dismal. It's hard to persuade people to invest in new industrial recruiting tools when the landscape is buzzing with commercial and residential building activity and the jobless rate is below 5 percent. But the imploding real estate market has translated to a county unemployment rate three times as high now as in 2005.
Diversifying Hernando's economy shouldn't be guided exclusively by discussions of dollars and cents. Commissioners shouldn't just proclaim, We can't afford to do this. More importantly, commissioners should wonder, can we afford not to do this?