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Hillsborough commissioners clash over economic incentives

A scuttled subsidy for a Home Depot warehouse provides campaign fodder for competitors Sandy Murman and Pat Kemp.

TAMPA — Home Depot is building a wedge between two Hillsborough County commissioners.

Not that Commissioners Sandy Murman and Pat Kemp were that chummy anyway.

Murman, a Republican, is challenging the re-election of Kemp, a Democrat, in the race for the District 6 countywide commission seat in November. Murman must vacate her District 1 seat after 10 years because of term limits.

A key difference is their stands on publicly financed incentives to private companies for economic development projects. Murman favors them, part of her laser-like focus on jobs. Kemp says she does so only in some targeted instances of recruiting industries offering high-wage employment.

So, a dust up over a planned Home Depot warehouse near Gibsonton and a second, smaller warehouse project provides political fodder for both. Murman’s campaign portrays Kemp as a job killer while Kemp’s camp characterizes Murman as a commissioner doing the bidding of builders and developers.

"I believe our first question should always be: Would the business relocate to Hillsborough County without our economic development incentives?'' Kemp said.

“'They will come anyway’ is not an effective policy,” countered Murman.

But that’s exactly what happened after the commission punted in June on offering a $438,000 transportation subsidy to an Atlanta-based developer planning a nearly 500,000-square-foot warehouse at Big Bend Road and U.S. 41.

Related: Home improvement warehouse planned for Hillsborough

At the time, the project had the code name of Project Station, described by the county as "a nationally known home improvements distributor.'' Public records filed in August confirmed the tenant as Home Depot. It is supposed to represent a $63 million capital investment, produce 42 new jobs and generate $577,000 in annual tax revenue, including $349,000 to the county.

But the incentive agreement never came up for a vote of approval. It was upstaged by a similar, but smaller project on the same commission agenda.

On a 3-3 vote, with Commissioner Ken Hagan absent, the commission declined to bless a $213,000 transportation incentive for a property owner to develop 100,167 square feet of warehouse/office space on Tech Boulevard in Tampa.

Kemp and Commissioners Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman, all Democrats, voted against the incentive. Smith, the most vocal objector, and Kemp stated they also would oppose a give-away to the home improvement warehouse in a traffic-choked area.

"What we need in infrastructure there will never be built unless we, unless the county, would do it and pay for it. That means it’s again on the back of the general taxpayers,'' Kemp said.

Besides, Kemp said, "these will be built without that assistance.''

Murman said the "no'' votes were counterproductive in a time of coronavirus-triggered economic uncertainty.

"So, I’m saying you vote against these, you’re voting against creating jobs,'' Murman said.

Related: Hillsborough commission to rework incentives

In light of Hagan’s absence, and under the board’s own rules, Commissioner Stacy White, a Republican, and Murman said they wanted to have the incentives reconsidered during the commission’s next meeting.

But two weeks later, White stunned everyone by announcing he had changed his mind and would not vote for the incentives.

"A couple things that come to mind for me, you know, the whole Wall Street versus Main Street issue,'' White said then. “I just want to make sure that to the extent that we have programs like this that it is benefiting Main Street and Hillsborough County.”

This week, White said he balked at the incentive after realizing "a big, publicly traded company was going to be an end user. That really caused me to rethink the program.''

A unanimous board deferred both incentive packages, known as "mobility fee buy downs,'' until it could hold a workshop on the ordinance that created the program..

That has yet to happen.

But the scuttled incentive didn’t disrupt the Home Depot project. In August developer Seefried Big Bend LLC closed on the $9.6 million purchase of the 62-acre site and obtained a $44.4 million construction loan from Trust Bank of North Carolina to build the warehouse, according to public records.

Murman remains critical of Kemp’s stance. In a written response to a candidate questionnaire from the Tampa Bay Times, she called it "particularly short-sighted and extreme given that we have 67,000 people out of work due to COVID.''

Kemp authored her own response.

"Within weeks Home Depot announced it would build the warehouse anyway,'' said Kemp, “demonstrating that the incentive was clearly not needed.”

Though he said he understood the positions of both of his fellow commissioners, White’s perspective mirrored Kemp’s.

"That’s certainly testament to the fact that we can bring jobs, and particularly big companies, to Hillsborough without the big incentive,'' he said.

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