Think big. That could be the new motto of Hernando County's industrial recruiting effort. Later this month, county commissioners will be asked to approve a plan to offer free leased land to a large-scale private sector employer willing to create 500 jobs and invest $25 million in capital improvements at the Hernando County Airport industrial park.
It's a reasonable strategy and a relatively painless investment involving no up-front cash and no back-end budget crunch because airport lease proceeds can be spent only at the airport. In other words, the county won't be sacrificing a future subsidy for its other general operations. The generous incentive is intended to boost the county's efforts at luring primary industry to a downtrodden economy too dependent on construction and service jobs and retiree spending.
But thinking big shouldn't end with trying to lure a large-scale employer to the airport's commerce park. If nothing else, a briefing Thursday morning from economist William Fruth to commissioners and top business leaders illustrated a portion of the county's incentive package thinks too small.
Approved in October, the county incentive plan offers up to $2,000 for every new job that matches the county's 2006 median wage of $27,605. It's a significant step backward from the previous ordinance that required a company to pay 115 percent of the median, or close to $32,000 a year, to qualify for financial assistance.
Fruth's sobering statistics showed Hernando County, if it were a standalone metropolitan area rather than part of the Tampa Bay region, would rank next to dead last nationally in annual wages paid. When you're ranked 362 of 363 metropolitan areas and are home to a salary scale that is just 60 percent of the national average, you better think big. Trying to recruit more of the same is a formula for a deteriorating quality of life in Hernando County.
Fruth characterized the local pay scale as "Third World nation stuff, one of the worst in America'' and told the participants they had an obligation to increase the annual wages paid in the county.
Clearly, Mike McHugh, the county's director of business development, understands, telling the group, "We can't rely on other people to do our work.'' He suggested greater county control or a collaborative effort with private land owners to develop additional industrial space in Hernando.
It's a sound idea. The private sector, however, must buy in also. Suggestions from members of Hernando Progress Thursday included reserving and acquiring right of way for future highway miles and building a control tower at the airport to boost traffic there. In other words, let government do it. That's not big thinking.
Here's an idea: instead of saying, "let's buy right of way,'' maybe the private business leaders can help absorb some of the political heat that would accompany any proposal for a new government revenue source to enhance transportation.
It's easy to tell the commission to prioritize economic development and to stand firm against competing interests seeking a share of the shrinking government pie. It requires leadership to devise and sell to the public an appropriate way to invest in a significant upgrade in the industrial recruiting infrastructure.