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Collier County luring high-wage jobs.

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avatarUdut, Kenneth -- on Jan. 9 2009, from Golden Gate Estates, Naples, FL
Founder of this Naples site of NeighborHelp Referrals.

A growing effort to gain momentum.

NAPLES — Collier County commissioners on Thursday got behind a new effort to bring in high-wage jobs.

At a workshop, commissioners directed staff to work with the Economic Development Council of Collier County on a new action plan to attract so-called “catalyst” companies that have the ability to lure other high-paying, growth businesses to the area.

The plan includes designating economic development zones in the county. Tailored incentives would be offered to entice companies to locate in those zones. Companies will be targeted in three industries: computer software and sciences, health and life sciences, and clean technology.

Economic and county leaders will work to develop the plan over the next 90 days. Then commissioners will be asked to vote on it before it moves ahead.

The money for incentives has yet to be identified. That is part of what’s expected to happen over the next few months as the plan unfolds.

The zones could be set up like Community Redevelopment Agencies, and would have their own boards to oversee them. Any taxes collected in those zones above the cost of the services provided could be redirected toward economic development.

The unanimous support from commissioners to build a new plan signals a new day in economic development in Collier County, said Tammie Nemecek, president of the Economic Development Council, after the vote.

“The county has just opened the doors to say, ‘Bring your business here. We’ll make it as easy as possible. Incentives are there,’” she said.

The goal is to come up with a self-sustaining program that will continue to provide money for economic development so that the Economic Development Council, a private-public partnership, won’t have to keep asking for more, she said.

Economic development leaders asked for commission support at an annual joint workshop.

“As a community and a nation, we need to redirect our efforts to innovative economic development efforts to support businesses that are competitive and entrepreneurial, businesses that foster high productivity and high wages, businesses that create opportunity for the short and long-term,” said Bill O’Neill, the Economic Development Council’s chairman. “In short, we need to create a business environment in Collier County that is both vital and sustainable.”

If the action plan doesn’t succeed, Collier could “suffer from radical service reductions, while becoming increasingly reliant on rapidly escalating ad valorem taxes,” he said.

“This area’s reputation as a highly desirable place to live, visit and retire will be severely undermined,” O’Neill said. “It may not be possible to recover from the downward spiral that would result.”

The Economic Development Council’s own scorecard found that, overall, Southwest Florida comes in last place in the state when looking at key economic indicators, such as employment, income, productivity and education. Among the findings is that the region lost 19,670 jobs between the first quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008. In the state, the only region to lose more jobs was Tampa Bay.

Separately, the Economic Development Council has launched Project Innovation to try to generate new thinking and new solutions for the county’s future. The community-wide effort, which includes a series of forums with economic development experts from around the country, will help shape the new action plan.

Necessary incentives may include having land and buildings prepped and ready for companies to acquire. Private landowners may be asked to help provide those incentives.

Nemecek pointed to an example of what it required to get the Torrey Pines Institute for molecular studies to open a center in St. Lucie County on Florida’s east coast. It took a $30 million incentive from the city of Port St. Lucie for the land and building, plus money from the county and Florida Atlantic University, she said.

Collier County has an incentive program, offering everything from fast-track permitting to money for every high-wage job created by qualifying companies. But the program hasn’t worked as well as expected. It doesn’t seem to be enough to bring a “catalyst” company to the county, said County Manager Jim Mudd. The fast-tracking permitting, for one, hasn’t been so fast. Companies have been lost because permitting takes too long.

“It sounds good. It’s a nice carrot to hold out and say we have. But it’s anything but a fast-track program,” said Commissioner Jim Coletta.

With so much commercial space vacant in the county because of a bad economy, several commissioners suggested it should be marketed to companies and maybe offered at a discount. They expressed concerns about building anything new to attract businesses here.

With budget constraints, commissioners also fretted about how much staff time it might take to develop the action plan.

O’Neill assured commissioners the Economic Development Council would take on much of the work itself.

Commissioner Fred Coyle said more needs to be done to speed up permitting and to get it done in advance so companies have land that is “shovel ready.” He pointed out that some companies will need their own customized buildings.

Though he supports the new action plan, Commissioner Frank Halas said he’s not sure where the money would come from for the new incentives, especially as the county’s budget has tightened.

“My concern is how are we going to generate this (money) without raising taxes on the overall populous?” he asked.

Commission Chairman Tom Henning said he was fully behind trying to diversify the local economy, which has long relied on the three industries of agriculture, tourism and construction, which are all showing signs of strain.

He said the economy in Collier County is the worst he’s seen in decades.

“We can’t sit idle and do nothing,” he said. “We must start moving this forward to improve our community.”

The workshop brought out dozens of community and business leaders, including 25 members, directors and employees of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. Most spoke in favor of the new action plan and the Economic Development Council’s new initiatives, including Project Innovation.

David Jackson, executive director of the Bayshore/Gateway Triangle Community Redevelopment Agency, said a vision without an action plan is just a “hallucination.”

He encouraged the county and the EDC to consider making his community redevelopment area, which spans 1,800 acres, one of the economic development zones. With money already available and zoning in place, it’s an ideal spot for the first project, he said.

“I got what you need,” Jackson said. “A pilot project makes sense.”

Gina Downs, a North Naples community activist, raised concerns about the direction of the new action plan. She’s concerned about what it might do to taxes.

The first speaker to come into town for a forum for Project Innovation was John Delaney, Jacksonville’s former mayor who launched the Better Jacksonville Plan, a $2.25 billion package of city projects covered by a sales tax increase.

Downs outlined how Duval County’s taxes and fees are much higher than Collier’s, and how that county has more people out of work and living below the poverty line.

Downs doesn’t want to see Collier become another Duval.

She’s in favor of a new action plan for economic development, but so far she said she hasn’t seen enough participation from residents.

She wants to make sure the community as a whole is behind the plan.

“I think there a lot of good ideas,” she said. “But I don’t want it to be sold to the public.”
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Collier County luring high-wage jobs. A growing effort to gain momentum.