Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Job incentives go bust again

There is a silver lining to the cancellation of T. Rowe Price's relocation of its Tampa investment center on W Boy Scout Boulevard to a new corporate campus along State Road 54 in southern Pasco County. It means taxpayers won't spend tens of millions in public dollars to help a private employer cross the county line and move 19 miles north. But it also is a stark reminder that financial incentives offered to create jobs don't always actually result in jobs and that there should be more regional cooperation in recruiting new business to Tampa Bay.

When T. Rowe Price's proposed move became public in 2008, the Lutz site was the only one in Florida competing for the center against bids from four other cities across the country. Pasco County and the state of Florida initially offered $14.5 million worth of incentives, and that grew to nearly $30 million after the state added a back-loaded job-creation enticement. In exchange, T. Rowe Price was supposed to move its 425 jobs from Tampa to Pasco and potentially add 1,200 more employees over the next decade as it invested $190 million into three multistory office buildings.

Even before the state sweetened its offer, Pasco County was in the red on this now-collapsed deal. The cost to the county's general fund would have been $7.1 million, with property taxes on the office campus projected to bring in only $4.1 million over 10 years, for a net loss of nearly $2,500 per job. Such corporate welfare is tough to swallow considering the incentive package came amid a series of constrained county budgets that required reduced public services, employee layoffs and public workers going six years between raises.

T. Rowe Price paid $13.5 million for the 72-acre site nearly five years ago, but its investment ended there. The relocation originally was to have been completed by 2012, but the Great Recession left the company with vacant space to fill at its other locations. The company's fading commitment to Pasco County is symbolized by its overdue property tax bill of $350 for the site that is largely tax-exempt because of its agricultural status.

The company could have been more forthright with Pasco County. T. Rowe Price spokesman Bill Benintende confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times' Lisa Buie that the decision against building in Pasco came last fall even though word only leaked during the company's April 24 annual meeting. John Hagen, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council, remained in denial Tuesday morning, telling county commissioners that T. Rowe Price had assured him there had been no change in its status.

Now Pasco County is stuck with an absentee landowner holding a prime piece of undeveloped property. Known as Long Lake Ranch, the site remains highly desirable for white-collar commerce because of its proximity to an educated workforce. The location on SR 54, between the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41, puts it within a 30-minute drive of more than 88,000 people holding four-year college degrees, according to data compiled in 2007. Those are the kinds of numbers — not the dollar figures in incentive packages — that should spur economic development.

Tampa Bay has made great strides in regional cooperation on issues such as promoting tourism, providing drinking water, enhancing higher education and staging large events such as the Republican National Convention and the recent Bollywood awards weekend. While T. Rowe Price promised to bring more jobs to the area by moving to Pasco, the collapsed deal's surest bet centered on changing the commute for its Tampa employees. That is not the wisest use of millions in tax breaks, and better regional coordination in business recruitment would shift the focus toward creating new jobs instead of moving the existing ones around.

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