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Agency off to good start, director reports

Though distinctly more low-profile than its defunct predecessor, the county Office of Business Development has kept busy during its five-month existence.

Its small staff has spent hundreds of hours interviewing local business operators about the work force, available property and related concerns, director Mike McHugh told commissioners Tuesday. It has launched a Web site, www.hernandobusiness.com, embarked on several promotional efforts and worked to attract companies to the community, he said.

The top priority, McHugh said, has been to ensure that government adequately serves existing businesses.

"That's our greatest concern: how they are doing and what we can do to help them," he said.

The effort has paid off, he said. Five companies, whose names are being kept confidential, are using the office to expand their operations and employment base, McHugh said, and at least one has worked with the county to secure industrial development bonds.

Much of the activity takes place in the county's airport industrial park, he observed, but business growth also is occurring out east. For example, he said, the Wal-Mart distribution center in Ridge Manor is nearing completion of a 95,000-square-foot expansion, and Polaris Pools remains under contract to build at State Road 50 and Interstate 75.

In addition, the office is working with six new businesses coming into the county, McHugh said. Waste Away Systems moved into the industrial park in June, and Omni Circuits is in the process of hiring about 40 people, having consolidated its New York and Clearwater operations here.

Other companies, primarily manufacturers, will bring anywhere from six to 100 jobs each to the county, McHugh said.

Commissioner Mary Aiken asked whether the county offers tax breaks or other incentives to lure companies. McHugh said the county makes no such items available, but it attracts companies through other strategies.

For instance, he said, the county provides infrastructure and, in some cases, standing buildings for companies to use. That attracts businesses that want to spend their capital on items other than land and transportation improvements, he said.

Also, the county helps businesses get proper training for employees and can apply for grants to support companies that bring new jobs, he said.

Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson asked for assurances that the office will work to bring high-paying jobs to the county. McHugh said his department cannot stop companies that pay low wages and offer few benefits from entering Hernando County.

However, he said the department offers less support to those types of businesses.

"We do not need to be targeting or putting our resources toward low-wage jobs or those without benefits," McHugh said.

The department had a budget this year of $331,000. For its eight months of operation this fiscal year, it projects spending of $223,790. It has requested $291,843 for the coming fiscal year.

Most of the money goes into office operations and marketing.

The office was created to replace the Economic Development Commission, a private group the county fired in spring of 2001.

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