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Hernando leaders chart economic future

In the coming months, a consortium of business leaders will give county commissioners a prescription for economic development in Hernando County.

A likely recommendation will be to place the county's economic development department under an industrial development authority, whose members would be appointed from the community by county commissioners, said Hal Robinson, executive director of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

"I think the business community is probably going to get in line behind the appointment of an industrial development authority," Robinson said.

About 40 business leaders attended a two-hour workshop Wednesday morning with commissioners about the future of economic development. Discussions about economic strategies began four years ago, but they gained momentum when economic development director Al Fluman resigned recently after serving the county for 12 years.

During the workshop, commissioners decided to split the management of the airport from the economic development department. They also retained the Airport Aviation Authority, which makes recommendations to commissioners on airport matters.

County Administrator Chuck Hetrick said additional personnel will be hired for the airport department, but he could not say how many will be employed.

County officials and business leaders have been debating whether the airport and its industrial park off Spring Hill Drive should be managed by the county's economic development department. They've also tossed around ideas for changes in the management of the economic development department.

These questions still remain:

Should economic development fall under the direction of commissioners or an industrial development authority? If there's an authority, should it manage both the industrial park and the economic development department?

H.

M. Shirley Jr., president and chief executive officer of Barnett Bank of the Suncoast, told commissioners he was concerned that the focus Wednesday was only on the airport and airport industrial park.

"Economic development can be and should be and better be a lot more than just developing the industrial park at the airport," Shirley said. "To me, economic development is taking positions on roads, on schools, on libraries, which will enhance the quality of life."

One issue from Wednesday's workshop is crystal clear: The private sector now wants more say in shaping the economy of Hernando.

At one time, Fluman supervised the economic development department, the airport and the airport industrial park for the county.

"The community has grown up, and there's a lot more people who want to have a say in what's happening," said John Walsh, business assistance coordinator for the economic development department.

"I just hope that everybody keeps the focus on helping to diversify the tax base and develop quality jobs and long-term career employment," he added.

Fluman, who recently accepted a position with Pearson Industries, originally suggested the development of an industrial development authority to recruit industry. The authority would act as a public-private partnership whose projects would be exempt from certain state taxes.

"We need the input of the private sector _ that's where your moneymakers are," Fluman said. "It's important to have them as part of the team."

With funding from the county's budget, the authority could issue bonds; buy, sell and lease land; construct buildings; and apply for grants, among other things.

The authority's members, who are not paid, would hire an executive director and possibly a staff to manage countywide economic development, Fluman said.

Cliff Manuel, owner of Coastal Engineering Associates in Brooksville, said he favors an industrial development authority because it would inform commissioners "on issues that will attract industry and advance the job base and focus on the economic climate of the county."

"I don't think the Board of County Commissioners takes on that issue each week, and the assistance would be something they'd welcome," Manuel said.

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