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Looking for a living in bay area's market // 500 JOBS

Until the very end, it was Tampa and Tulsa, neck and neck, stride for stride in the race to win USF&G's new insurance claims center.

The winner: Tampa by a nose, USF&G Insurance officials announced Tuesday. The purse: as many as 500 jobs with average salaries of $27,000 a year.

It was a major economic-development victory for the Tampa Bay area, which has had a recent history of attracting mostly low-paying, back-office operations.

It also is significant considering the competition. USF&G considered 400 cities during the 8-month search for a site for its national claims reporting center. And many, including Tulsa, were willing to offer much more in economic incentives.

By December, the search had been narrowed.

"I have got to be honest with you, when it came down to Tulsa and Tampa, there was very little difference between the two," said Ken Cihiy, senior vice president of claims for Baltimore-based USF&G.

Tulsa had the advantage of offering more than twice the amount of economic incentives, and it boasted a superior job-training program, Cihiy said.

So what pushed Tampa ahead?

A plentiful labor force, suitable for the company's needs. Good references from other businesses that have moved here recently. But most impressive was the business community and how well it cooperated with local and state government.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Committee of 100 assembled a team to help convince USF&G to move to the city. Under the moniker "Team Tampa," more than 50 chamber volunteers pitched in with local and state government officials to court USF&G officials. Tampa Mayor Dick Greco made a trip to Baltimore to meet with USF&G executives.

"I have never seen an area where the business community was so united, where they were so focused on helping new businesses, where they were coordinated with local and state government," Cihiy said.

That praise is sweet, especially considering that many have long complained about a lack of economic development incentives available in Tampa Bay and in Florida.

By spring, USF&G plans to lease space in Sabal Park business park. It will hire about 340 new employees within the next two years and that number will probably climb to about 500 later. Most of those are expected to be local hires.

While Tulsa and Tampa have similar labor markets, Tampa has more people who would be interested in customer-service-type jobs. But the company didn't use unemployment rates or statistics from local economic development officials to make that determination.

Instead, they placed advertisements in local newspapers to find out how many people would apply and their qualifications. "It was primarily through that tool that we established the number and quality of the labor pool," Cihiy said.

Florida's economic incentive offerings, while nowhere near as high as Tulsa's, were good, Cihiy said.

They include $1.7-million worth of tax refunds over a six-year period as long as the company continues to hire workers at average wages 15-percent higher than Hillsborough County's average, $23,299. That's part of a new state program called the Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund Program. Local governments are required to provide 20 percent of the refunds.

The company will also get $279,195 worth of job training for its new workers and $176,000 in public transportation improvements to roads leading to the new center.

"This is another great example of how, if we work together, state, county and local individuals in Florida can compete for high-paying, high-valued jobs," said Commerce Secretary Charles Dusseau.

There are no plans for Tampa to rest on its laurels, said Chamber president Donald Barber.

"You can clap each other on the back, but you have to keep moving," he said. "We are working with quite a few companies. The interest in the Tampa area is still very high."

On the way

WHAT: A center that will handle all insurance claims from USF&G clients throughout the country. It will employ 340 within the first two years, and that number could later grow to 500. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

WHEN: The first management employees will arrive in April to begin hiring. Employee training is expected to begin in June. Full-service operations are scheduled to begin in September. Details about the application process will be announced later.