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IDA subcommittee discusses how to survive amid budget cut

SEBRING - Hardee County's economic development office pushes for value-added agricultural products. "Instead of farmers and ranchers selling to producers, they become producers. They carve and flash freeze specialty cuts," David Noel told the Strategic Planning Subcommittee of the Highlands County Industrial Development Authority-Economic Development Commission. Pork from Palmetto Creek Farms isn't available at local supermarkets, said Noel, a University of South Florida Small Business Development Center counselor. The subcommittee's purpose Wednesday at the Sebring airport was to set goals and generate ideas that it can bring back to the full board. Highlands County has eliminated the IDA-EDC's funding, and it faces extinction if it cannot either attract new industry or justify its existence, county commissioners decided earlier this year.
Palmetto's clients for free-range, grass-and-grain-fed pigs from Avon Park include Ritz Carlton, Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, and Royal Caribbean International. Chefs have told reporters that Palmetto's products are the best on the market. Who took the lead in Hardee County, subcommittee member Carol Howard asked. Its EDC, Noel said, "but they have grants we don't have here." Money comes from the Mosiac Company, which mines phosphate in Hardee County. When prospective industries visit Highlands County, IDA executive Stephen Weeks said, Highlands County is often asked for what it can't provide: the $4.5 million in incentives Polk County will give to Amazon.com to build a distribution center, or an overhead crane that can lift 2,000 pounds. "We aren't in a situation to do that," Weeks said. The local IDA-EDC shouldn't target industries who want such incentives, said Rick Ingler, who was sitting in for Highlands County Commission chair Jack Richie. Howard's idea was to grow existing businesses. "You have a lot of small businesses in this area. If each one of them add one or two employees, that would grow the economy enormously." Subcommittee members worked out language to present to the full board, which it could take to the county commissioners; partners like the chambers of commerce, the county, the airports, the school board, the regional planning council, the workforce board. "This is a wakeup call," Howard said. "We heard you, and we want to share with you our feelings, and create a productive organization that is value added." "I think my board, I think that's what they want to see," County Administrator June Fisher said. When Howard listed the county's assets, she included quality of life, low population, proximity to Orlando and six other urban airports, U.S. 27, a railroad, a large health care industry, a low crime rate, and a smaller cost of living than nearby cities. "I moved here because I wanted this quality of life," said Howard, who is from the Palm Beach area. "We have an (international baccalaureate) program, and our college is fantastic and growing all the time." Ingler listed industries he thought Highlands County could successfully attract: "Manufactured housing is labor intensive. I used to live in one. And they're not the trailers you're used to. Go out to Tanglewood and look at one of those triple-wides that cost $160,000. Is all the furniture made in China? We used to make furniture in southern Indiana. Specialized auto conversions - somebody is putting ambulances together." "There is one on 1-75, and there's a van conversion place," Howard interjected. Weeks thought the IDA should concentrate on agricultural products like aquaculture. Ingler thought Highland's County's low-paid workforce should be listed as an asset. "I can hire workers all day for $10 a hour, and I can make a line to the highway." "I don't consider that an asset," Heartland Workforce Director Donna Doubleday said. "There's another side of that: people choosing not to work because child care is so high. When you say wages are low, you are (suggesting) they are low skilled." "How about I put 'Affordable Wage Worker,'" Howard asked. The subcommittee debated over whether to ask for presentations from the agriculture industry, the Sebring airport and manufacturers for itself or the full IDA-EDC board. "If this unit doesn't survive, we're wasting our time," Ingler said. "If we can do this, it's going to take a tremendous amount of hard work. He added with a smile, "and of course, you shouldn't pick the worst economy to try this in." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828