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$100,000 earmarked for fish farm

While not a turkey, one state budget item approved last week was certainly fishy.

Hernando County will get $100,000 to help set up a glorified fish farm on the north campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College. It's the fourth time the county's Economic Development Commission has tried to find money for the project. And while the EDC didn't get the $284,000 it requested the project finally has a chance of happening.

Project HABITAT, Hernando Area Business Incubator for Transferring Aquatic Technologies, will teach local entrepreneurs how to start their own "enclosed life science technologies," the EDC says.

Basically, they'll learn how to farm fish or plants indoors.

The plan is to build a small office, lab and two or three 5,000-square-foot greenhouses on 5 acres at PHCC. Inside, a small number of local entrepreneurs would learn how to grow crops or raise fish indoors for sale as food or bait. Staff members from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, an aquatic research and education institution in Fort Pierce, would come to PHCC to teach the secrets of successful aquaculture, the farming of fish and other sea life.

"HABITAT allows (entrepreneurs) to get in the business and understand what needs to be done," EDC executive director Richard Michael said. "When those people are up and running and at the level where they can graduate out, they'll move out to facilities at the airport."

The airport has already set aside 100 acres on its south side for the EDC's proposed Aquacultural and Bio-Science Development Park. The park would house greenhouses and other structures used for small plant and fish farms.

Because the $100,000 is so much less than what the EDC asked for, Michael said the budget will have to be scrutinized to see where cuts can be made.

"Is it possible to scale the dynamics back or do we need to go out and find other money?" Michael asked. "The process will work itself out."

At this early stage, the EDC doesn't even know how many people would be interested in such a program. Because of the funding shortfall, Michael thinks it could take another year or two before the project is up and running.

Michael acknowledges that the HABITAT project hasn't exactly been on the front burner lately. Several other issues have been taking up most of his time.

Recently, two local businesses announced plans to construct new buildings at or near the Airport Industrial Park. Engineers are already at work on drafting Aerial Road, which will connect the existing Industrial Airpark to the new Corporate Airpark southwest of the airport's runway. The road will open up undeveloped land for new or relocating businesses.

Last week, letters were sent to several area manufacturers and small businesses about an export assistance program the EDC hopes to launch this summer.

Four or five manufacturers will be invited to go to Mexico and try to export their products to Mexican companies. At the end of their stay in Mexico, the business owners will be asked to identify their top prospects, who then will be invited to visit Hernando County.

"It's kind of a unique program," Michael said.