Florida’s Lee County is known for its more than 50 miles of beaches between Boca Grande and Bonita Springs — home to a nationally-known annual arts festival set for Jan. 10-11 — as well as its largest city, Fort Myers, whose population grew by some 20,000 people, to an estimated 68,689, this past year.
More recently, as the economy spiraled into severe recession and all-but-frozen financial markets, Lee became a hotbed of foreclosure activity; the number of foreclosure filings reached an all-time high of 2,603 last October before receding to 1,645 the following month.
A few weeks back, the county earned another distinction — as one of the few counties in the nation to add to its economic development tool kit a new program offering incentive cash for companies in the life sciences and other higher-wage industries that relocate to or expand within Lee. The county announced it would establish a $25 million fund it has christened Financial Incentives for Recruiting Strategic Targets, or FIRST, Initiative.
FIRST awards cash to companies that operate within a target industry or sector designated as high-impact by Florida law. In addition to investing capital in a cumulative amount equal to or greater than the award amount, recipients of FIRST funding must, in return for receiving funding, create at least 75 new full-time equivalent jobs within a three-year period, paying an average wage of at least 125 percent of the Lee County annual average.
The program’s announcement and launch last month followed a decline in the median household income for Fort Myers and the rest of Lee County, as recorded by the US Census office — from $43,476 in 2004, to about $39,000, which is both less than the state average and less than the national average. It’s even less than the $40,319 median household income recorded in the 2000 US Census.
The decline in regional incomes coincides with a ballooning state budget shortfall. Florida faces what officials say is a $2.3 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year, and a deficit for 2009-10 whose projections range from $3.8 billion to $5.7 billion.
“To the extent that the state of Florida’s revenues are down, you can have the same expectation for the counties and cities within the state of Florida. It impacts all of us,” James Moore, director of the Lee County Economic Development office, told BioRegion News. “Not just Lee County, but every county is affected by the condition of the state’s budget.”
Moore recently discussed the FIRST initiative, and the broader challenge of drawing life sciences businesses to Lee County, with BRN. Following is an edited transcript of the interview:
Why did the county decide that it needed, and thus created, the new fund?
What it says is that the county is interested, and happily able, to create an incentive to encourage economic diversification and development in the county. It says our county is pro-business.
How does this differ from what the county was able to do before?
The county had never set aside funds for incentives for diversification and expansion of high-value businesses.
When you say ‘high-value’ businesses, is that as defined by the state?
They can be, but they can be others, too, that would meet our definition of diversification and high-value jobs.
What industries is the county looking to target?
We hope to target those companies that have an average wage of at least 125 percent of the county average, and with revenues that are not dependent on sales in the state of Florida over 51 percent.
To what extent will the life sciences be among the kind of industries the county is looking for?
I would hope that the life sciences would be a major part. They are, obviously, a very attractive industry to us. And to the extent that [the incentive] is attractive to them, we would embrace discussions with those that would be interested in the incentives.
What kinds of life sciences employers are there now in the county?
There are some initial steps. We have a couple of companies here — Tigris [Pharmaceuticals, a Bonita Springs, Fla., developer of cancer therapies], and Greystone Pharmaceuticals [a Fort Myers developer of wound-care technology platforms] are here. We don’t have any research institutions per se here. We have a very large healthcare delivery system, as you might imagine given the demographics in Florida. Florida Gulf Coast University is very supportive with its academic programs. And we have a couple of small and budding pharmaceutical companies, and some others that we’re talking with.
What’s the latest with the Madden Research Loop effort? [Denver developer John Madden, no relation to the football broadcaster, has proposed building a five-building, 275,000-square-foot life sciences/technology park on 25 acres of the 750-acre Skyplex Commercial Center near Southwest Florida International Airport. Groundbreaking for the first $15 million building of 60,000 square feet has been delayed to the first quarter of 2009, with the developer publicly citing the length of government reviews. The project is envisioned as the first of several development phases.]
Well, they’re now completing their permitting. I talked to those folks just yesterday. They’re through with county permitting, but there are a few state and federal permits yet to be had. Their permitting issues have to do with the Army Corps of Engineers, and hopefully they can satisfy the Corps with whatever those permit conditions are soon. They think the worst is behind them, and I think they hope to break ground very soon, though I have to add I’m not comfortable speaking for Madden.
We’re very excited about Madden Research Park. They’ve developed parks for the life sciences in San Diego, Denver, and other cities that are clusters — that provide clustering of benefits for companies in the life sciences. They’re developing an operation here, and we’re hopeful that all these things will bode well for the future for us.
What types of jobs and operations is Lee County most interested in attracting?
We are in discussions right now with a couple of manufacturing companies. Headquarters are always nice. But it’s hard to know what comes first, the chicken or the egg? A facility followed by a headquarters, or vice versa? I guess my short answer would be we would be interested in any and all of them.
Beside the life sciences, what other industries is the county interested in seeing expand within its borders?
We have had good success in recruiting headquarters, [information technology], and aviation-related industries — aircraft refurbishing and maintenance.
Several other regions in Florida have pursued the recruitment of life sciences employers, using millions of dollars in state funding. What can Lee County offer that an employer wouldn’t find in, say, the Tampa area, or Port St. Lucie, or any of these other bio-heavy places?
I think we can offer a quality of life in our location, in addition to the incentives that are available in this $25 million. That’s Lee County money, up front, saying we’re ready and available, and we’d like to talk to you. Which is a little bit different that having a life science company that you’re putting together a package for that includes state and various local pots [of money] that they look to fill.
Within the $25 million your county is making available, is there a maximum limit per company or per industry?
No. It will depend on the facts and circumstances surrounding each individual situation.
From what other economic development function is the $25 million being redirected?
The money is coming from unallocated reserves of Lee County government. These are funds that are not part of this year’s budget, and have been set aside for incentives.
Is this a one-time $25 million fund, or will this be renewed when the original money runs out?
I can’t tell you what the future will hold. If we do well, I have every reason to believe the county will continue to make money available for efforts like this.
How essential is this incentive fund for the county given the real estate downturn that followed the foreclosure spike that has affected the county, especially the Fort Myers region?
We suffer only marginally more than the rest of the state of Florida and some other areas in the country, notably Nevada and California. I think what it says in Florida, is that our county recognizes the fact that we need more diversification, and this is our attempt to try and address that issue.
In the past year, the state of Florida eliminated its $250 million Innovation Incentive Fund, which is credited with helping attract a half-dozen research institutions to the state. To what extent do local counties like Lee have to make up the difference by coming up with their own incentive programs?
It’s hard to measure the sins of omission. I don’t know what might have been, had additional dollars been there. I think incentives are important, because when a company is looking at relocating, they look at risk and cost. And to the extent that you can reduce both those barriers, you have improved your situation relative to everybody else.
What, if any, administrative changes will Lee County make as a result of the new fund?
We’re organized to deal with inquiries that come our way as a result of this. Happily, we’ve had a number of inquiries just as a result of news reports of the county approving the $25 million, and then our press release. We’re very hopeful that this will make an impact, and have a positive impact on economic diversity in Lee County.