Local News

Would Amazon come to Highlands?

To lure Amazon warehouse jobs, Polk County commissioners are offering $4.5 million in cash and tax incentives. Hillsborough County wants the giant retailer so badly, they've pitched $6 million. "We don't have anything too unique to offer them in the way financial incentives," said Highlands County EDC Director Stephen Weeks. "The short version is what we have notified the state of Florida that we would like Amazon to consider locating in Highlands County. But at this juncture, haven't positioned ourselves to have available the large incentives." The governor's office said in June that the giant Seattle bookseller and merchandiser has proposed to create more than 3,000 full-time jobs and invest $300 million in Florida by the end of 2016.
"We look forward to the company's announcements as it chooses locations and creates jobs in Florida," Gov. Rick Scott said. However, Weeks attended an EDC boot camp on Thursday, and he thinks that Highlands County could compete for a branch data center. "We do have the infrastructure to support that. We will be following this story very closely." Weeks underscores that at this point, no one - perhaps not even Amazon - knows what infrastructure the data center would need, how many workers would be hired, or the skills needed. Weeks met with Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of Commerce Gray Swoope at Indian River State College's Okeechobee campus. Highlands County's competitors were also in the room. "It was packed out," Weeks said. "At least 120 people: Hendry, Glades, DeSoto, Martin counties, DeFuniak Springs... We are literally competing on a world stage now." Even offshore and foreign economic developers were there. Weeks and his counterparts in neighboring counties are taking a regional approach. If Amazon builds a distribution center with 3,000 jobs in Lakeland or Frostproof, for instance, Highlands County citizens can benefit from the temporary construction, permanent warehousing jobs and truck driving jobs. "If you're going to pay a good wage, people will drive," Weeks said. "If it comes next door, we will still benefit." However, he doesn't consider Highlands out of the race. DeSoto County landed a million square-foot Walmart distribution center in 2005. It's clear, Weeks said, that Amazon has been stalking Florida for a long time. What's only been hinted is exactly where Amazon wants to be in Florida and what its purpose will be. Amazon sells books, videos, songs, games, software, electronics, computers, toys, clothing, automotive, tools. Florida is a major food producer, and AmazonFresh has been experimenting for years with groceries in Seattle. Reuters has reported that Amazon is now pushing Fresh in Los Angeles. Weeks picked up a hint that Amazon may build not one but two large distribution centers, plus specialized regional centers as well. One could be the data center. "One of the things they look for is land, and that's something we've got a lot of," Weeks said. Although Amazon has asked for a two-year moratorium, Amazon's physical presence in Florida also will mean that the Seattle-based e-seller will be required to collect sales taxes from Florida buyers, which will benefit the state and could benefit the host county and city. Florida is the only large state that doesn't e-commerce taxes. Last summer, Amazon started collecting sales taxes in Texas after the Lone Star State fought for $269 million it said Amazon has owed for sales taxes, interest and penalties. The Hillsborough County Commission will meet July 18 to consider a property tax break for Amazon that would lower the company's taxes by half, to $910,000 a year, for seven years. The property tax break was approved by county voters several years ago. Hillsborough said South Shore Corporate Park at the County Road 674 exit off Interstate 75 is in the running for one of the sites. Other counties may decide to woo Amazon as well, which will create stiff competition. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828