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Now what? In jobs-crazed Florida, a county rejects a relocating corporate headquarters

A funny thing just happened on the way to another Florida jobs deal — this one to recruit a national roofing company's headquarters to the state.

Sarasota County officials said no. And now early alarm bells are sounding in economic development circles that Florida may not be the welcome-all-business state that it pitches itself to be.

Sarasota's County Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday against offering $720,000 in local incentives to help lure an unnamed national roofing company's headquarters because about 20 local contractors and professional associations balked. They argued subsidizing a new roofing company to the area would make it harder for existing businesses to hold on to hard-to-find human resources, IT and other key personnel in a county with an already low 4.3 percent unemployment rate.

The recruiting effort, dubbed Project Mulligan, included an additional $864,000 in state incentives with the roofing company committing to bring its headquarters to the area along with 180 jobs over time averaging $59,000.

The county commissioners said they voted against the deal because of the strong resistance from the area building industry. But economic development leaders and corporate site selectors warned Sarasota had set an ugly precedent that could tar the county — and perhaps Florida — as not being as open for business as state and regional leaders have long insisted.

"The reputation is that Sarasota isn't a major player in economic development," said a clearly unhappy Rob Sitterley of Orlando's Merit Advisors, which is assisting the roofing company in its relocation. "This vote clearly says they don't want to be a player."

The commission's rejection of the roofing deal was detailed in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Mark Huey, the head of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County and a former senior city official in Tampa, had pitched the corporate relocation as the only opportunity in the past five years to try to relocate a national headquarters to the area.

"Not once have we seen so much resistance," Tim Vanderhoof, vice president for business development for the state jobs recruiting group Enterprise Florida, told the Herald-Tribune.

A debate is already brewing over whether Sarasota County thumbing its nose at a headquarters relocation is an isolated event or one that can ripple across more of the state. In downtown Tampa, Tampa Bay Lightning hockey owner and real estate developer Jeff Vinik is trying to lure an out-of-state corporation with some stature to bring its national headquarters to his 40-acre site.

It seems unlikely the Sarasota denial of a deal would influence Vinik's efforts, but it's early to assess the Sarasota impact. Site selectors are a clubby bunch and talk to one another frequently — more so when one of them feels unexpectedly spurned in what should have been a slam-dunk deal. And Sarasota's county commissioners bowing to the wishes of local companies, however well-intentioned, could spark more pushback against economic development in other metro areas.

"It's a small tribe, these site selectors," University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith told the Sarasota newspaper. "They're going to know what happened here, and there will be a black mark against Sarasota when they start winnowing down site locations."

University of North Florida economist Paul Mason called Sarasota's decision "protectionism" and warned that it sent an unfortunate message. "If you're going to act like this with roofers, what will you do with other industries?"

Also muddying the state's economic development waters is the recent blow delivered to Enterprise Florida by state legislators who denied a major funding request for more financial incentives. That rejection prompted Gov. Rick Scott to begin downscaling the state jobs recruiting organization, while also speeding the departure of Enterprise Florida CEO Bill Johnson, who steps down in June. No successor has been named.

Even if this turns out to be much ado about little in Florida, other states competing for the same jobs now have a fresh weapon to use against the Sunshine State.

So, Sarasota. Is this a mere blip on the economic development radar, or have you kicked up a larger storm?

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com Follow @venturetampabay.

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