Pasco's Economic Development Council should be commended for trying to instill a sense of urgency in the county's industrial recruiting and job creation efforts.
Bolstered by the voter-approved Penny for Pasco sales tax that will provide a projected $45 million over the next 10 years for economic development, the EDC last week presented Pasco County commissioners with a menu of ideas on how to best use the windfall. Most notably, the panel correctly put an emphasis on what it dubbed product development: spec buildings, commerce parks, shovel-ready industrial sites and assembling parcels within targeted redevelopment areas to market to private investors. Some of the spending could be recaptured through future real estate taxes paid by the new businesses. The EDC also smartly advocated borrowing against future sales tax dollars to begin the work in the immediate future, rather than following a pay-as-you-go methodology that could push substantial investment off for several more years.
These aren't all new ideas. Economic consultant William Fruth recommended public-investment in a commerce park nearly a decade ago. And, the predecessor to the EDC, the Committee of 100, suggested subsidizing industrial spec buildings as far back as 1998.
"We talked about this 15 years go,'' said Commissioner Pat Mulieri. "I know,'' responded EDC president John Hagen. "It's time.''
Indeed. As Hagen noted during a workshop presentation to commissioners, the Penny for Pasco revenue shifts the debate from whether the county could afford to do something to actually devising the best use of the dollars for job creation opportunities. The goal is to attract and retain high-wage jobs to curb the live-here, work-there existence that sees 88,000 Pasco residents commute to other counties each day for employment. The exodus is financially motivated. People employed within Pasco's borders earn an average of $36,000 annually, nearly one-third less than the national average.
Other components of the wish list include incubators, workforce development, business loans, a convention center, and substantial marketing. Not every item on the proposed EDC menu is easy to swallow and certainly requires substantial vetting. For instance, why use Penny for Pasco economic development dollars for a convention center if its main goal is to attract visitors? That project, if it comes to fruition, would be correctly financed by the county's tourist tax on overnight accommodations. That likely will rekindle the near annual-debate on whether to increase the 2 percent tourist tax, an idea that so far has failed to earn support from a required four-person commission majority. Likewise, Commissioner Ted Schrader wisely expressed unease on using Penny for Pasco dollars to safeguard against potential losses to a privately financed business loan program.
More scrutiny will follow, but commissioners shouldn't just sit back and wait for things to happen. Commissioner Jack Mariano understood the need to seize the opportunity and logically suggested surveying landowners near Interstate 75 and Suncoast Parkway exits to determine their interests in partnering with the county on commerce sites.
Commissioners and business leaders, by now, should be familiar with the message. Their top priority for expanding the job base should be the availability of industrially zoned real estate that can be flipped quickly to businesses eager to relocate. Financing is no longer an obstacle, and prior political reluctance should be set aside as well. It's time to pursue the EDC menu to improve the local and regional economies.