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City rates Nielsen's importance

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Some say the employees of the Dunedin company support small businesses. Others say the firm is asking too much to stay in the area.

If the lack of cars parked outside Antonio Illiano's restaurant during lunchtime had anything to do with success, his business might be hurting.

"People drive by and say, "That place isn't doing good business,' " he joked before pointing to a pack of people making a beeline across Patricia Avenue to his restaurant, called Umberto's. "Those are my customers."

Illiano shakes hands with the stream of diners as they come from the Nielsen Media Research headquarters across the way.

Like most weekdays, employees from Dunedin's largest employer visit Umberto's for a taste of what Illiano proudly calls "Italian food cooked by Italians."

But empty parking spaces and the aroma of success aside, Illiano says his business faces uncertain times.

He, along with other area merchants, wonders how their barber shops, boutiques and garages would fare if Nielsen decided to leave its Dunedin headquarters for more spacious facilities.

Without the media research company's trickle-down effect, many business owners along Patricia Avenue say they stand to lose as much as 25 percent of their patronage.

"We would feel the impact big time," Illiano said. "About 60 to 65 percent of our lunch business is Nielsen employed and they guarantee a lot of business. Without them, we would lose."

Juanita McMullen, owner of the Pet Boutique in downtown Dunedin, figures about 10 percent of her business comes from Nielsen employees.

"We've been here for 17 years and have enjoyed a good association with those people," McMullen said. "I would hope the city would encourage them to stay because they have a definite impact on our city and I don't think they should leave."

For 27 years, Nielsen has kept track of the country's television ratings from its Dunedin headquarters, which now employs more than 2,000. But officials of the company, which was purchased by Holland-based VNU for $2.7-billion in October, say they have outgrown the 210,000-square-foot building on Patricia Avenue and are looking to expand.

Nielsen's options range from moving as far away as the northeastern part of the U.S. to staying in Dunedin by expanding into a neighboring six-acre property on Scotsdale Boulevard owned by Time Warner.

Time Warner officials, who say their property is valued at about $1.2-million, are in talks with Nielsen and Dunedin city officials about a possible deal. Both companies declined to discuss details.

"We are a major employer in the community and we have a need to grow with the community," said Jack Loftus, Nielsen spokesman. "And as any major company looking at the same issues we're facing, we're looking at the kinds of incentives cities, states and counties provide to accommodate that growth because this is in everybody's interest."

Some Dunedin business owners, however, have been critical of Nielsen's effort to secure tax breaks and other incentives in return for a pledge to stay.

"You hate to see any business leave, but this is like blackmail," said Dr. Douglas Jones, who has an internal medicine practice on Patricia Avenue. "I guess it's good to have jobs available in the area, but I would hate to have my taxes go up any more to pay for them to stay."

Dunedin Mayor Tom Anderson disputes the notion.

"I don't think that is accurate, because we don't know what they want," he said. "I don't think we're anywhere right now because they are in the site selection phase. They are a very important corporation and we're going to work hard to keep them here. Until they have selected a site we really can't get into specifics."

Pinellas County commissioners last month agreed to participate in a $1.8-million tax refund package aimed at helping Nielsen expand its operations in Pinellas County.

Nielsen is promised $360,000 from the county and the rest from the state to help pay taxes during a five-year period, if the company decides to stay.

While county records show Nielsen would pay $75-million to expand its operations in an unspecified portion of unincorporated Pinellas County, Nielsen and county officials have not disclosed how the deal would affect Nielsen's Dunedin operation.

Such deals have left merchants such as barber Eddie Hartman skeptical of the company's motives.

"Nielsen pretty much helps us keep our head above water when the snowbirds leave," said Hartman, co-owner of Headquarters Barber and Beauty shop located off Patricia Avenue. "But I would be concerned that if the city gives them what they want, they would come back a few years down the road and say they want more."

A study conducted by the city shows Dunedin receives more than $231,000 annually from Nielsen alone in the form of property taxes, water and sewage fees. Money, city officials say, goes back into the city's general fund. In addition to what the city receives, another $618,000 in property taxes goes to the county.

"The trickle-down effect from a company with 2,000 positions in the city on a sustained yearly basis, without a doubt, is substantial," said Bob Ironsmith, Dunedin's economic development director. "And while the retention of this company is important, the opportunity for the expansion of 400 new postions would help drive the economy from the standpoint of new business opportunity."

Also, the city's plan to spend $3.2-million to widen and beautify Patricia Avenue and South Douglas Avenue are improvements the city hopes Nielsen will consider.

"The vision of the Patricia Avenue improvements as an enhancement to the corridor is a big thing," Ironsmith said. "We haven't gotten down to the brass tacks, but we are looking into the vision because Patricia Avenue needs a shot, as does South Douglas."

Nielsen's Loftus, however, declined to comment on whether the Patricia Avenue improvement plan would play a role in the company's decision.

"We have a magnificent workforce throughout the Dunedin area and our wish is to not displace those people," Loftus said. "But at the same time we have a growing business. We have a need for more space, for more employees and we are looking at how we can we continue to grow the business and expand our facilities where we are now; or do we need to go elsewhere?"