Economic Development Corp. asked to offer suggestions about potential use of Sarasota County’s Economic Incentives Fund to help businesses during virus crisis

Commissioner Ziegler points to the approximately $4.3 million set aside to help lure ‘game-changer’ companies to the community

This is the banner on the homepage of the Economic Development Corp.’s website. Image courtesy of the EDC

Prompted by a suggestion from Sarasota Commissioner Christian Ziegler, the county commissioners voted unanimously on March 24 to ask the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) of Sarasota County to offer suggestions about how the county best can help businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.

The focus will be the approximately $4.3 million in the county’s Economic Development Incentive Fund. That money was set aside to help draw what Commissioner Charles Hines called “game changer” companies to the community.

As the board members discussed a wide range of issues related to the rising number of novel coronavirus infections in the community, Ziegler noted that the amount in the fund.

“Obviously, we have businesses that are hurting right now,” Ziegler said. “What can we do to get that [money] on the street right now?”

One idea, he continued, might be to offer $50 debit cards for use at restaurants in the county. Based on his math, Ziegler said, the fund would be able to pay for about 86,000 cards.

Dave Bullock is the interim CEO of the EDC. Image from the EDC website

Commissioner Nancy Detert offered praise for the initiatives former Longboat Key Town Manager Dave Bullock already has been taking since he was named interim CEO of the Economic Development Corp., calling him “a very creative guy.”

Then Detert added, “I don’t think we can arbitrarily spend that pot of [economic incentive] money without [EDC collaboration]. It’s a public/private partnership.”

However, she continued, the commission could challenge the EDC to suggest creative uses of that money to “help kick start the economy.”

The expense of boosting the health of the economy amid the COVID-19 crisis, Detert pointed out, “could be just as costly … well, it will be more than dealing with the virus [from a human health standpoint].”

During an upcoming meeting, Commissioner Alan Maio said, perhaps Bullock could make a short presentation about potential uses of the incentive funds.

Maio referenced the “dozens and dozens and dozens” of calls he had received from restaurant and hotel owners “who are just being savaged.”

During the summer of 2018, many businesses took out loans to survive the significant decline in tourism related to the red tide bloom, Maio continued. They likely are close to paying off those loans, he said, and now they are faced with the COVID-19 situation.

Referring to the purpose of the incentive money, Maio added that he did not think county leaders would be recruiting new businesses “for the foreseeable future.”

Commissioner Charles Hines. File image

“This is going to take a lot of creative thinking, as we go forward, to try to help the economy,” Commissioner Hines pointed out. He agreed with the idea of asking the EDC leaders to offer suggestions, he continued. “But I don’t want to start handing out $50 gift cards and get rid of this [incentive] fund …”

Hines further pointed out that no one knows at this time how long commerce will be affected by COVID-19. The crisis could end up being short-lived, he continued. “If this does extend two to three to four and five months,” he said, “[that is] a different story.”

Finally, at the request of County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Hines made the motion to direct staff to ask for EDC suggestions on use of the incentive fund money. Ziegler seconded it.

The question of shuttering private businesses

Another focus of business-related discussions on March 24 was the authority local governments have to close businesses and impose curfews.

Ziegler noted that County Attorney Frederick J. “Rick” Elbrecht had provided the board members a memo on that topic, so Ziegler asked Elbrecht to comment on the findings.

“I am getting a lot of calls,” Ziegler said. “There’s a lot of confusion …”

“There had been some inquiries to the county administrator from different municipalities,” Elbrecht began, noting the basis for the research undertaken by the Office of the County Attorney. “The county does not have that specific statutory authority,” he added, to close businesses or impose curfews.

The governor can delegate that authority to local governments, Elbrecht continued, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has not done so.

In the March 19 memorandum from the Office of the County Attorney, Elbrecht explained that Chapter 252 of the Florida Statutes “details the emergency management powers of the state, the Governor and the political subdivisions of the state.” However, under the provisions of Florida Statute 252.38(3), the memo noted, Sarasota County can “take whatever prudent action is necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the county.”

County Attorney Rick Elbrecht. News Leader image

Hillsborough County has issued directives that have gone further than those DeSantis has provided in executive orders, Elbrecht pointed out on March 24. “There’s really no precedent for that, or not case law, as to how that would be viewed …”
If the Sarasota County Commission wished to go beyond the directives the governor has issued, Elbrecht continued, then the board members would have to demonstrate damage and harm to the county greater than that experienced by the rest of the state.

Summing up Elbrecht’s memo and comments, Commissioner Ziegler said, “It’s the governor’s decision?”
“Correct,” Elbrecht replied.

Then Commissioner Detert noted that she had received emails from people asking that the commission order businesses to close. Is there a certain fund of money they could tap into if the commission did that, she asked Elbrecht.

His speculation, he replied, is that such requests might be linked to business owners’ efforts regarding insurance claims or perhaps the ability to cancel contracts, without facing liability. “I’m not aware of any fund that’s available … for businesses that are ordered to close by government,” Elbrecht added.

Related initiatives

During a March 24 presentation to the commission, Rob Lewis, the county’s director of governmental affairs who also oversees the county’s in-house economic development efforts, talked about steps he already has taken to assist local companies.

“There’s a lot of broken hearts out there in business and in industry,” he said, “but there’s not broken spirit.”

He and his staff have provided a link to business and industry news on the webpages county staff set up to keep the public apprised of COVID-19 updates, Lewis pointed out. It has links to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the Small Business Administration and other entities, he said.

Further, “We’re working on a business registry that will list all businesses and restaurants that are open,” Lewis continued. That should go live shortly, he added.

This is the first page of the letter to business owners, available through the county’s dedicated COVID-19 webpages. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The previous day, he said, he kicked off a virtual roundtable with the chief executive officers of the Chambers of Commerce in the county, as well as the CEOs of the major businesses and industries, so they can share ideas on a regular basis.

Lewis also noted that he had sent an email to municipal leaders in an effort to set up a similar “recovery roundtable” with their economic development staff members.

Finally, Lewis pointed out that while the Florida Legislature did approve a $93-billion budget this spring, he already has heard discussion that Gov. DeSantis will use vetoes to save money that can be redirected to the COVID-19 response.

The expectation, Lewis added, is that the Legislature will have to restructure the budget at some point, as DeSantis does not have the authority to go that far on his own.