County Commission agrees to offer $144,000 incentive grant to digital marketing company after assurances that funds would be pegged to jobs created and kept in place

Commissioner Mike Moran opposes the decision, emphasizing his focus on career creation in the community

Commissioner Mike Moran. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

It took about 20 minutes of discussion on April 3, including staff emphasis that no payments would be made unless jobs were created and maintained for five years and that the company offering them is attracted to the community because of the Ringling College of Art + Design.

In the end, four of the Sarasota County commissioners approved an offer of $144,000 — $20,000 apiece for 72 jobs — to enable county staff and the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) of Sarasota County to continue negotiations with a digital technology firm interested in relocating to the county.

Commissioner Mike Moran cast the lone “No” vote during the board’s regular meeting in Venice, voicing again his distaste for using taxpayer money “toward these incentives unless we are focused on a very clear and measurable goal.”

An impact report provided to the board in advance of the meeting said that over 10 years, another 22.7 jobs would be spun off from the company, and the average salary would be $58,905. The firm’s capital investment at the end of a decade was put at $255,000, the report added. Ten years after the company moved to Sarasota County, the report noted, the net financial benefits to the community would total $430,116.

Commissioner Nancy Detert also initially expressed reluctance to support the request from the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development, and she chided Mark Huey, president of the EDC, for his lack of information about the incentives Boca Raton is offering the same firm, referencing a note in the memo staff had prepared for the board.

However, after Lisa Damschroder, the county’s economic development coordinator, assured Detert and the other board members that reporting measures required by county guidelines — plus staff monitoring — would ensure no money would go to the firm unless it carried through with its job proposal, Detert agreed to support the request.

A fact sheet provided to the board shows the expected impacts of Project Polish after 10 years in the community. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Damschroder also stressed that if the negotiations prove successful, staff will come back before the board to seek approval of a contract with the incentives; then, the name of the company will become a matter of public record.

Diving into the details

As detailed in the memo the Office of Business and Economic Development provided the board in advance of the April 3 meeting, the “Project Polish” company “has recently signed a long term contract with the largest floor manufacturer in the world, to supply websites and digital marketing services to 2,500 of [the manufacturer’s] top flooring retailers.” As a result, the memo continued, the company needs to hire more staff and move out of its current location.

Pursuant to its incentives grant application with the county, the memo added, the company has said it would create 72 new full-time jobs in Sarasota County over the next five years. Those jobs would have a starting wage of $40,621, which, Damschroder pointed out, is 100% of the average annual Metropolitan Statistical Area wage for the region in which Sarasota County is located.

The firm’s initial capital investment would be $50,000, the memo noted, and 100% of its sales “are generated outside of Sarasota County.”

When Detert first asked what Boca Raton was offering, Huey of the EDC told her, “We’re not privy to [that information].”

“Well, we’re publishing what we’re offering,” Detert replied. “They don’t have guidelines [in Boca Raton]?”

“I’m not sure,” Huey told her. “I’m sorry I can’t answer that question.”

Another document provided to the board offers details about the incentives for Project Polish. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moran then talked of how eager he is to discuss the county’s incentives program during a half-day workshop planned for May 24. He especially is interested in “targeted industries that will complement our way of life here in Sarasota County,” particularly those that will entail job creation, he pointed out.

At that point, Commissioner Charles Hines asked Damschroder to provide background on how the county’s incentives program has changed.

Whereas the county used to offer “a lot of incentives upfront,” she said, the guidelines were revised about three years ago to ensure no firm gets any money until it has created the jobs it has touted and kept them in place for the specified number of years in the contract with the county. The first year jobs are in place, she continued, the firm gets only one-quarter of the payment promised from the county. “If they don’t maintain the jobs, they don’t get any further incentives.”

After Damschroder concluded her remarks, Detert said she would support the Project Polish negotiations. Nonetheless, Detert added, when the board holds its May 24 workshop, one provision in its basic economic incentives resolution needs to be eliminated. “We are no longer in a depression,” Detert pointed out, referring to the second clause in the standard resolution, which begins, “Whereas, in light of the impact the multi-year recession had on the citizens and businesses of Sarasota County, there continued to be a demonstrated need to promote economic activity in the County …”

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

“I like pay for performance,” Detert added. During the May 24 workshop, she continued, and further changes in the resolution should provide “a clear vision on what kind of companies that we want. … We’re not Red Lake, Minn., or ‘Podunk,’ Mo.,” she said. “We’re offering a beautiful lifestyle.”

Moreover, Detert pointed out, the jobs Project Polish is offering “are general secretarial or administrative positions” at $40,000 per year.

The EDC needs to be more visionary, she continued. For example, Mote Marine — which Detert commended for its internationally known research — needs more scientists, she noted, and those positions would pay more than $40,000 per year.

At that point, Damschroder noted Project Polish’s attraction to Ringling College graduates.

“That’s the exact connection that I’m looking for,” Detert replied.

“We’re a unique county in the state,” Commissioner Charles Hines concurred with Detert. Referring to the May 24 workshop, he added that if the board chooses to keep the incentives program, it needs to tailor county offers so they attract the types of companies the community most needs.

Damschroder replied that the EDC already “targets those unique to Sarasota County …”

Then Commissioner Alan Maio told Damschroder, “Every time you bring us one of these [incentives requests], it’s heartburn for me, and, I’m sure, for other commissioners. … All I know is your brief remarks and how to pronounce the name.”

Maio pointed out that, in this case, “Polish” is pronounced like the verb referring to what one does with shoes or furniture, not the noun naming the Eastern European nation.

“I look foolish when I get asked on the street” for details about the firms seeking incentives, he continued. Yet, “I know you can’t change the state anonymity rules,” he told Damschroder, referring to legal prohibitions regarding announcing the name of a company at this stage of the negotiations.

Lisa Damschroder. File photo

Detert noted that she chaired the Commerce committees in both the Florida House and Senate for a combined 10 years when she served in the Legislature prior to her election to the County Commission. Therefore, she said, she understood the philosophy behind the anonymity. When negotiations are taking place with a large company — as in the Hertz deal a few years ago — the firm’s leaders do not want their employees to be aware of the situation until a deal has been finalized she said. “Transparency kicks in when [the companies] take the first dollar” of taxpayer money, Detert added.

Staff will be prepared on May 24 to address facets of the anonymity issue, Damschroder assured the board.

“I will echo just about everything that was said in various forms and [to] various degrees,” Chair Paul Caragiulo told his colleagues and staff.

Detert then made the motion to approve the offer of the $144,000 grant in the negotiations with Project Polish. Hines seconded it.