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SYSCO FOOD DEAL PLAYS IT SAFE WITH INCENTIVES

Two years ago, an economic development consultant told Pasco's elected and appointed officials to be on the lookout for a cash register - a company distributing goods and services over a wide area that effectively enriches the local economy with an influx of outside revenue.

County commissioners hope Sysco Food Service Corp. will provide the initial ka-ching by bringing 257 high-paying jobs to the area.

Tuesday, the commission became the second government body in less than 12 hours (Zephyrhills City Council was first) to endorse a tentative economic incentive package to lure Sysco to Zephyrhills.

Zephyrhills will refund more than $2-million in city taxes and $700,000 in impact and utility fees over a decade. Likewise, Pasco will pay up to $400,000 to improve the road infrastructure and will refund to Sysco $1.5-million over 10 years. The Sysco operation is expected to generate more than $3-million in county tax payments over the same decade. Other taxing entities like the School Board and water management district are not part of the deal. Additionally, state grants are available to assist with the transportation infrastructure costs.

If accepted by the Houston-based corporation, land now used to feed livestock would become home to a distribution center to feed the masses. The plan is to turn 62 acres of agricultural grazing land north of the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport into a 393,000-square-foot plant (the equivalent of nearly two big-box supercenters) for Sysco to provide staples to hotels, restaurants, schools, cruise ships and other food consumers.

The generous incentive package does not pose a significant risk to the governments. The vacant land now produces little tax revenue because of its green-belt exemption for agricultural use. In other words, the governments are promising refunds of future tax payments, not current revenue. That is important in this season of budget squeezes mandated by state legislators.

Fortune magazine rates Sysco at No. 66, between Sprint Corp. and Kmart, on its list of the largest businesses in the nation, ranked by revenue. Commissioner Ann Hildebrand called Sysco part of a potential cottage industry. It's a big cottage, actually, but her point and that of Commissioner Mike Cox, is well taken: Surrounding land increases the opportunity for future economic activity.

The site off Sixth Avenue east of CSX railroad tracks is identified on county economic development maps as 4 Rail LLC, one of 20 industrial/business parks in Pasco. It sits north of three other parks between County Road 54 and State Road 39 that have more than 160 acres available for industrial development.

In the county economic development quest to marry vacant land with suitable businesses, think of the potential deal with Sysco this way: It is a relatively safe prenuptial that could change Pasco's frustrating status as an industrial recruiting bridesmaid.

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