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New game plan

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  • | 8:37 p.m. August 20, 2009
  • Florida
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With unemployment near 11%, Hillsborough County officials and business interests are creating a new blueprint for economic development. One goal: Increase the amount of land ready for businesses to move in and start up.

Twenty-one months into the recession, and with county unemployment at a 30-year high of 10.7%, Hillsborough County has a new plan for its economy — well, at least a plan to plan.

The yet-to-be-written “Economic Development Strategic Plan” is the next step, following an “Economic Stimulus Task Force Report” issued in June (See “Key recommendations”). With an expected completion by year-end, the strategic plan likely will take 18 to 24 months to implement.

Florida's and the nation's recoveries are likely to be a half-year in the making by then. Florida economist Hank Fishkind predicts the state's bottom to be by Easter 2010 (April 4), eight months from now. Fishkind predicts the U.S. recession to bottom this November.

But with Hillsborough's unemployment rate climbing from 7% a year ago to 8% in December and now 10.7% — meaning nearly 65,000 people unemployed — the impetus for action has been self-evident.

Hillsborough County commissioners unanimously agreed in February to have Commission Chairman Ken Hagan form a 12-member Economic Stimulus Task Force. Its mission: “Develop strategies, incentives and tools that will create new and higher paying jobs in Hillsborough County, stimulate economic development and improve its long-term competitiveness.”

More flexibility
Task force members included representatives from public, private and academic circles, including chair Bob Abberger, senior managing director of Trammel Crow Co.; Dr. William Dalton, president, chief executive officer and center director of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute; and Mark House, managing director of Beck Group and chair of the Committee of 100.

Says Abberger: “The question here is we should take control of determining what we're going to be rather than letting events dictate what we're going to become.” He's optimistic that the task force's recommendations can be implemented by the end of next year.

The task force's 29-page report, issued in June, contains 12 recommendations and 30 actions items, 16 of which are either mid-term or long-term items. The first of the 14 immediate action items calls for completion of the
Economic Development Strategic Plan. Gene Gray, the county's economic development director who has spent the past nine years of his 32-year career in the county in his current slot, says the strategic plan will be the “game plan” for how the county will move forward with expansion and development efforts.

One of those efforts will be to create more flexibility with incentives for targeted industries. Currently, county policy requires the creation of at least 100 jobs to qualify for a Qualified Target Industry tax break, even though state law allows a minimum of just 10 jobs in one of the two tiers of the program. Gray is pushing for the change.

Gray also agrees with the task force report that planning and zoning ordinances need to be relaxed to improve the overall business climate. And he notes the county's growth-management department is working to amend the land-development code. Asked when the code amendments will happen, Gray says: “I don't know the answer to that.”

One proposal in the report calls for creating “expedited permitting for certified sites,” but it's listed as a mid-term action item, which could take up to six months to implement.

Another area of focus is the Interstate 4 corridor, where the county is initiating a comprehensive-plan amendment and the rezoning to go along with it for property owners. The task force says the county needs to “expand permit-ready land and protect existing land inventory.” The importance of the recommendation is reflected in the fact that four of the 14 immediate-action items are tied to this recommendation.

“Most companies don't even want to talk about a comp-plan change,” Gray says. “That means that you have to have an adequate inventory so that you have adequate opportunities to compete in some cases. The reality is that our inventory is pretty well depleted. The I-4 corridor is an important piece of that process.”

A report prepared for the task force claims a countywide need for 2,400 acres by 2025 to meet the demand for high tech industry, life science, office and light industrial space of 500,000 to 700,000 square feet a year. A study team targets 40% of the land needs to be located in the I-4 corridor, or about 1,000 acres.

Bruce Erhardt, executive director of commercial real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield's Tampa office, says the shortage is most pronounced for industrial land suitable to higher-end corporate operations. In other words, he says the county needs a couple more 1,000-acre Sabal Parks.

'Long-term process'

Another key to the Tampa region's future success is the county's investment in a 57-acre parcel just east of I-75 near the University of South Florida.

The county acquired the property for $1 million after a study emphasized the magnitude of the life science industry, University of South Florida research and development facilities, and Moffitt and the county's role in shaping that segment of the economy.

The county previously helped orchestrate the deal that brought M2Gen (Moffitt Genetics Corp.) to the Moffitt campus near USF in December 2006. M2Gen, a specialized, 100,000-square-foot cancer treatment research and development facility, is a collaboration between Moffitt and Merck. Its goal is to combine molecular profiling technology with clinical response to improve cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Details of how the county plans to govern that 57-acre tract are in progress. Gray expects the county will issue a request for proposal seeking a private developer as a partner. He also expects USF will be a partner, adding, “They need to be a partner with us. Moffitt needs to be a partner with us. The big guys, the big players need to be involved in this.”

The expectation, according to Gray, is that the partnership will generate property taxes and other economic growth — jobs, payrolls, spending and sales taxes that go with the jobs, plus the spin-offs and business relocations that come from M2Gen and other companies. Says Gray, “We do everything on a return-on-investment basis. We understand that the role of government is to help facilitate economic growth in a community.”

But Gray also knows this activity doesn't occur over night. “There's no magic wand or switch that's going to change where we are today,” he says. “This is a long-term process.”

Task force members

Bob Abberger, Trammell Crow Company

Chuck Black, Tampa Electric Company

Dr. William Dalton, Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute

Henry Gonzalez, III, Bank of Tampa

Ken Hagan, Hillsborough County Commission

Mark House, Beck Group Committee of 100

Dr. Steven Klasko, University of South Florida

John Lenyo, CAE USA

Dr. Jack Rechcigl, Gulf Coast Research and Education Center

Dr. Shawn Robinson, Hillsborough Community College

Stuart Rogel, Tampa Bay Partnership

Chuck Sykes, Sykes Enterprises


• Position the county to be a leader in job creation in the recovery.

• Immediately stimulate new, existing and expanding business activities, including startups, within target industries.

• Establish a regulatory climate that incentivizes sustainable business and industry growth.

• Send a message that the county is “open for business.”

• Provide a competitive advantage for recruiting new businesses and support expansions of existing ones.

Key recommendations

Here are the top recommendations in the Hillsborough County Economic Stimulus Task Force Report

• Develop and implement a detailed economic development strategic plan.

• Reassess and revise the organizational framework of existing economic development entities.

• Review, amend and expand job-creation incentive programs.

• Review, streamline and strengthen land-use, permitting and entitlement policies.

• Expand permit-ready land and protect existing land inventory.

• External marketing to targeted industries.

• Support a referendum for multimodal transportation funding.

• Adopt improved procurement/purchasing policies that support the hiring of Hillsborough County businesses in providing products and services to Hillsborough County.


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