Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Editorials

Panel stumbles on improving Hillsborough economy

A panel appointed to make Hillsborough County more business-friendly has become bogged down and divided over whether or how regulations should be streamlined — not the broader issue of long-term economic development. From the start, the panel has been hampered by a lack of key guidance from the Hillsborough County Commission and split leadership. And the seven-member commission has given no sign it was serious about diversifying an economy that promotes suburban development. While the panel deserves more time, members should begin looking to salvage their ideas for another day.

The Economic Prosperity Committee was created in March to examine and revise any county regulations "that may inhibit job creation." The goal was to build an environment that attracted private industry by improving the local infrastructure and labor market, and to work with other local governments and regional players, such as the airports and ports, to make the Tampa Bay area more competitive.

But the committee has fallen short of that lofty perspective, and the panel has taken a hit from critics who see it as little more than a front for developers interested in tax incentives and more compliant environmental rules, especially the restrictions on building in wetlands. While commissioners made clear last week they would not weaken the wetlands protections, the panel is still adrift and a lightning rod for suspicion. A bigger problem, though, is that the committee was premature in the first place. And it is acting as an island when the only effective strategy is for the region to work together.

It is sensible and reasonable to help the business community navigate the regulatory process, and the county can do it without shortchanging public health, safety and the environment. But commissioners and senior staff already know the problem spots in the bureaucracy, and they have the authority and ability already to fine-tune the system.

The panel has a contribution to make, but commissioners could have helped by first defining what industries the county hoped to attract and how the county would work with other regional players. Reforming the regulatory code is only one part of creating a business climate. The committee could be helpful in identifying suitable sites for industry and in sharpening the link between infrastructure and the local economy. But again, these discussions are secondary to a regional economic vision.

The assumption behind this committee is that less regulation leads to more business. The real world is more complex than that. Members, though, deserve more than a few months to bring their ideas to the table. The county can always reprise the effort if this one collapses and it chooses to look more seriously down the road at attracting new industry.

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