St. Johns County wants more shade for economic development proposals as commercial growth continues

Through any disagreements among St. Johns County commissioners over the past few years, all have found some common ground in making the promotion of economic development the county’s priority.


This effort is two-fold: attracting new business and industry, and helping existing businesses and industries prosper. Ultimately, the goal is to expand and diversify the tax base — with commercial properties that add to the roll without putting the strain on schools and other services that residential properties do — while creating more jobs for the county’s residents.

Much of this process is carried out through the county’s Economic Development Agency, formed in 2011. The office is the designated primary partner with Enterprise Florida, which is the state’s economic development organization (and the target of some increased scrutiny by state lawmakers so far during this year’s legislative session).

The county office provides assistance to businesses interested in locating or expanding into the county, whether that entails site selection, incentive negotiation and other due-diligence requests. While this process has received some shade from the state’s Sunshine Laws (a series of laws meant to guarantee public access to the public records), the county’s Legislative Action Plan has included support in recent years for expanding the existing exemptions for economic development.

The county wants to amend state law to “enhance” the confidentiality of economic development activities by giving commissioners some flexibility to deliberate in private and allow confidential information (already provided under shade to the county’s agency) to be provided to commissioners without such communication being considered a disclosure and, thus, terminating the confidential nature of that information.

County spokesman Michael Ryan on Friday told The Record economic development is a “very competitive field” and the county, in order to stay in the chase, would support legislation allowing it to deliberate and “make significant decisions and explore opportunities” in a confidential environment.

Specifically, proposed changes to Florida Statute 286.0113, which deals with general exemptions from public meetings, would allow commissioners to deliberate in private regarding an economic development proposal, whereas, currently, such a proposal remains confidential only while it is before an economic development agency.

A proposed change to Florida Statute 288.075, dealing with confidentiality of records, would allow confidential information in the possession of an economic development agency to be provided to a commissioner without the possibility of such communication being considered a disclosure, which would terminate the confidential nature of the information.

“The increased confidentiality may spur additional economic development from entities that may otherwise not be amenable to discussing economic development activities due to the lack of confidentiality,” the county’s Legislative Action Plan says.

Ryan said a lack of such exemptions “hampers” the ability of Florida counties to recruit outside of the state “because many of these corporations do not want their future plans disclosed in public records prior to them moving forward.” He said confidential information might include names and sizes of buildings (proposed or existing), products, dollar amounts and other details that could impact the market or give away their plans to competitors.

He said companies could be looking at states like Florida, Georgia and Texas and if they can get, for example, Texas, to let them keep their move confidential six months longer, without letting their competitors know, that would give Texas “the edge.”

“It constricts our ability to level the playing field when competing for those corporations across the country,” he said.

No one in the legislature, at this point, has sponsored a bill resembling what the county is calling for, but Ryan said the county has not “truly pursued” getting any of its legislators to actually write the bill and bring it forward.

A bill filed by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, appears to do the opposite, calling, among other things, for more transparency to the awarding of economic incentives. It also amends definitions in the existing statutes for “proprietary confidential business information” and “trade secrets” to ensure associated protections would not extend to amounts paid to a private corporation, partnership or person by an economic development agency pursuant to incentive agreements.

SB 1502, essentially, would ensure the purpose and costs of contracts between individuals or corporations and any entity receiving public funds (such as the controversial $1 million agreement between Visit Florida and the rapper Pitbull to promote tourism to the state) are publicly available.

Overall, however, the momentum seems to be in favor of blocking out the sunlight.

According to the Florida First Amendment Foundation’s website, there are already at least 59 bills this legislative session that would either create new open government exemptions or extend current exemptions. The foundation also says Florida has 1,119 exemptions to open government laws already on the books.

The county also supports prioritization of economic development programs and increased funding for initiatives aimed at helping existing businesses expand, and the attraction of new businesses “to enhance Florida’s job creation efforts.”

The state’s incentive programs are collectively referred to as the “economic development toolkit” and come in a variety of forms including tax credits, tax refunds and tax exemptions. However, in the 2016 legislative session, the toolkit was reduced to $18 million from $43 million in 2015. Some associated funding was cut altogether.

In its Legislative Action Plan, the county argues reduced incentive funding puts Florida at a “competitive disadvantage” with other incentive-rich states such as Georgia, South Carolina and Texas when competing for large-scale capital investment and job creation projects, also known as “mega-projects.” It says the financial burden is also shifted onto local sources.

Ryan said commissioners are on the record as supporting confidentiality within economic development negotiations and increased funding for the state’s incentive toolkit, although adding the board has taken no formal action on any of the proposed bills being debated in the current session.

Regardless of any hindrances caused by transparency or last year’s dip in incentives funding, the county is experiencing continued commercial growth.

Asked what measures were in place to reel in businesses before the Economic Development Agency’s creation, Ryan replied, “It was a different county prior to that.” He said requests and proposals were mostly handled by the administration and the board, but the department was created to “professionalize” the process, and boost recruiting and retention.

Ryan said the county does target industries, such as manufacturing, and does conduct some reach-out, mostly in the form of marketing the county. The agency is also “constantly” responding to prospects, he said. As far as doling out incentives go, Ryan said there’s a points-based system taking into consideration factors such as company size, job creation, what products would be made/what services would be provided, among others.

New companies setting up shop in St. Johns County last year included Lowe’s Home Improvement, Nopetro and Nona Blue Modern Tavern; those expanding their operations in the county included Northrop Grumman, Burhardt Distributing and Family Dollar. Meanwhile, commercial and mixed-use developments such as Durbin Park, Nocatee, Twin Creeks and St. Augustine Shipyards are in various stages of completion and readiness for occupancy.

According to the county’s 2016 Economic Development Activity Update, agency staff provided “customized” assistance for 137 business inquiries during fiscal year 2016, which represented a 49 percent increase from the previous year. Inquiries came from “brokers, developers, consultants, and business representatives” requesting information on “site selection, incentive education, general community demographics, workforce and training assistance.”

The update said staff, in addition to managing ongoing projects, provided requested information to 35 “new qualified prospects” and 18 individuals interested in starting a business in the county.

Numbers compiled in the update by state and local sources indicate overall population, labor force and employment figures are up as the county’s unemployment rate has dropped steadily from 5.5 percent in 2013 to 3.8 percent in 2016. According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the average county wage was up to $39,721 in 2015, from $36,190 in 2012.

Data provided by the DEO and St. Johns County Building Services says there were 6,592 businesses, of which 344 were new businesses, in the county in 2015. Meanwhile, commercial building permits in fiscal year 2016 totaled 1,119 and the market valuation for those permits was $174.9 million.

According to the county’s Office of Management and Budget, the commercial tax base increased $280 million and tangible personal property (basically, everything other than real estate used in a business) increased $37 million from 2014 to 2015.

Tuesday’s commission meeting will include annual reports from the agency on efforts through the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, which provides business retention, recruitment and networking services, and the University of North Florida Small Business Development Center, which provides training and consulting services to local businesses free of charge.

Growing economy

Jobless rate

2013 2016

5.5 pct. 3.8 pct.

Average wage

2012 2015

$36,190 $39,721