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Business leaders told: Education, infrastructure will attract high-paying jobs to area

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image TopGolf plans a 65,000-square-foot center in Brandon. The driving range, restaurant and sports bar is slated to open in the fall.

“We are on a roll and will continue to bring great companies here but we need to change from an economy which is still service provider to one that is high-tech, high-wage."

By KEVIN BRADY
 
After a banner year for new business development and job creation in southern and eastern Hillsborough, expect more of the same in 2014 but the county will need to up its game to attract high-tech, high-paying jobs, Brandon business leaders have been told.

In 2013, Amazon.com, the United Services Automobile Association and Bass Pro Shops, among others, all secured deals to set up shop in south and eastern Hillsborough.

South County and Brandon is primed for even more new business development in the next 12 months, said Ron Pierce, a former president of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce.

“If you look from a development standpoint, eastern and southern Hillsborough is not built out, unlike other parts of the county, which gives us a huge advantage not only with space but our transportation infrastructure,” Pierce said.

Financial incentives from local government have also played a part in hooking new firms, Pierce said.

“Our elected officials are committed to drawing these businesses here and if you look at what the county is offering these companies it makes us very competitive,” Pierce said.

A huge shot in the arm for the local economy was the report in October last year that Amazon.com, the world’s largest Internet retailer, plans an 80-acre facility in Ruskin. The $200 million distribution center is expected to employ around 1,000 people and cover at least 1 million square feet.

Sweetening the pot for the Internet giant, the Hillsborough County Commissioners approved more than $900,000 in tax breaks for the company, waiving half of Amazon’s property tax bill for the first seven years. Hillsborough beat out Polk County, which had also been offering tax breaks in an attempt to draw Amazon to Lakeland. Amazon is now planning a much smaller facility in Polk County employing around 100 people, the Lakeland Ledger reported last month.

But it’s not just the tax breaks that are drawing companies to the area, said County Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

“We have been successful in bringing large companies because we have a very good workforce, Florida is also one of the largest states in the union so it’s a large market and the state is just a great place to live,” said Sharpe who spoke to Brandon business leaders last month about attracting high-tech companies to the area.

Covidien is the latest company expanding to South County. The medical device manufacturing firm plans to open an office in Riverview later this year with the 62,000 square foot facility creating 165 new jobs, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

Another company hooked on Hillsborough is The United Services Automobile Association. The company is planning a 420,000-square-foot office in Brandon near U.S. Highway 301 and the Selmon Expressway.

Most recently, TopGolf announced plans to break ground on a 65,000-square-foot building near the intersection of I-75 and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway early in 2014. The sports bar and restaurant is expected to create more than 100 fulltime jobs and open in the fall of 2014.

TopGolf chief development officer Randy Starr cited the area’s “fast-growing and thriving community” as one of the reasons for opening its first Florida facility in Brandon.

Once it’s up and swinging, TopGolf will rub shoulders with Bass Pro Shop. The iconic outdoor sporting goods store recently purchased 18 acres in the same area near the Westfield Brandon Mall.

In addition to tax breaks, the county voted earlier this year to pay $6 million to improve roads in the area, a key factor in attracting Bass Pro Shops and TopGolf to Brandon, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

“This world-class sports and entertainment experience will be joining its neighbor, Bass Pro, as part of an overall regional entertainment destination venue to be located in the Brandon area of unincorporated Hillsborough County,” Hagan said at the time.

But with many of the new jobs in the low-paying service sector, attracting high-tech, high-paying jobs will only happen if business and political leaders “kick it into high gear,” Sharpe said.

“We’ve been resting on some of our natural advantages but we are going to have to get very serious about quality education in kindergarten through 12th grade as well as universities,” Sharpe said.

An aggressive focus on STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and graphic arts will sow the seeds of a high-wage, high-tech economy, Sharpe said.

“We are on a roll and will continue to bring great companies here but we need to change from an economy which is still service provider to a high-tech, high-wage and to do that we need the governor, state legislature and local officials to make this our top priority.”

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