Poll: Most Tampa Bay voters agree with incentives for corporate relocations

Published Jan. 2, 2014

It's a mainstay of the economic development playbook: when courting a corporate relocation or expansion, offer tax breaks, road improvements or just plain cash.

Now a new poll finds that two-thirds of Tampa Bay area voters are comfortable with offering such incentive packages.

"We need to encourage businesses to move to Florida," said Harry Davis, 52, of Riverview, who is between jobs after a decade each in information technology and video production.

The poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay surveyed 625 registered voters from Dec. 12 to 17. Overall, 66 percent of respondents said they agreed with the practice of governments giving incentives such as tax breaks to attract businesses to move here.

Support was stronger in Hillsborough (69 percent in favor, versus 63 percent in Pinellas), where officials this year have announced planned arrivals or expansions by the likes of Amazon, Bristol-Myers Squibb and USAA.

"People recognize that a short-term investment in companies and new jobs pays significantly more dividends over the long term," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Still, several voters said they agreed with the practice, but want officials to do their homework.

"I'm not one that likes to give the keys to the store away," said retired Continental Airlines pilot Al Phillips, 61, of St. Petersburg. "When a city or a county board is looking at doing such a thing, I want them to do a financial analysis. I want them to look at what a business is going to do in the way of jobs and what this business is going to do for us."

On the other side, retired social worker Suzanne Reagan is among the 28 percent of respondents who disagreed with the practice.

"It's not that I don't want to see businesses expand," said Reagan, 66, who lives in Lutz. "I want to see them contribute to the community, rather than getting a free ride."

The bay area has plenty to offer — natural beauty and room to grow — so "why wouldn't they want to come here?" she asked.

Incentives play big roles at the beginning and end of the recruitment process, said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit business recruitment agency that receives some government funding.

Early on, companies are looking to shorten their lists of potential relocation or expansion sites. No incentives? You're out.

In the middle of the process, however, the dominant question is whether the candidate cities can provide the workers they need. If the answer is no, offering incentives probably won't help.

But if the answer is yes, sweetening the deal can make a difference in the end.

There are a variety of state and local incentive programs.

Under Florida's Qualified Target Industry (QTI) program, state and local governments provide tax refunds to businesses that create jobs with higher-than-average salaries in industries such as life sciences, financial services, information technology or aviation.

The approach is conservative and performance-based, Homans said, because the money isn't paid until the promised jobs are created.

When local officials like the Tampa City Council consider a QTI package, they typically are told what kind of company has applied, how many jobs it is looking to create, what wages it would pay, what is the schedule for creating those jobs, how much it would invest in buildings and equipment and what other states or countries it is considering.

They are not told the names of the companies, which are exempt from disclosure under Florida's public records laws.

That doesn't sit well with St. Petersburg retiree Evelyn Hill, who otherwise agrees with the practice of offering incentives, albeit with limits.

"I feel like we need full disclosure," Hill said. "Unless they're trying to hide something or pull something over on us, why wouldn't they want to disclose everything? If you've got something to hide, we don't want you here anyway."

But, Homans said, "in most cases where these deals are put together, confidentiality is critical."

That's because knowing what Hillsborough officials were offering a particular company could attract more competition from other cities.

Also, if a company is looking at moving, early disclosure can create uncertainty for employees. Executives prefer to have everything worked out, with decisions and plans made, before starting to address questions about employee relocations.

And some companies don't want their names out there for proprietary reasons. One life sciences company told Hillsborough recruiters it did not want competitors to know about its plans for a new division and product.

The poll results are encouraging, but not just for local policy makers, Homans said.

"Companies looking to come here like to know they're in a community that supports economic development," he said. "If we're all divided and fighting about it, it creates a different climate."