'Just the beginning': City leaders talk economic diversity, targeted industries

Matt Algarin

City leaders have long made it known that they want to diversify the economy beyond its current tourism heavy state, but the question is what it looks like.

"If we could get some light manufacturing, I think we should do that," Councilman Jim Bagby said, also noting that he would like to see the city work to attract high-tech, high-wage industries like military contractors.

During a workshop Monday night, the city council was briefed on economic diversity and target industries by representatives from the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County.

The goal of the night was to introduce city leaders to the ideas of targeted industries, designing incentives to attract businesses and benefits and uses of the ad valorem tax exemption program.

Kay Rasmussen, the EDC's interim president, told city leaders that professional business services, light manufacturing, diversified tourism, financial services, and education and health services are the targeted industries specific to Destin, based on findings from the Haas Center at the University of West Florida.

"The idea behind targeted industries is that you want to identify what are sustainable industries in your city," she said. "You want to target the ones that will have the most benefit to your community."

Looking throughout the city, Rasmussen said the city has options at their disposal, such as plenty of Class A office space and the industrial park situated along Airport Road, which could be used to attract smaller businesses that don't require a lot of space.

Once city leaders narrow down and decide on the targeted industries they'd like to attract, the next step is for them to create incentives that could be used to help lure potential businesses to Destin. Incentives are not going to be used all the time, Rasmussen said, but they are "tools in the toolbox" the city can call on when needed.

"Think of it like you are applying for a grant, there is certain criteria you have to meet to even be considered," she said. "This is all in your hands; you can do anything."

In Okaloosa County, Rasmussen said one incentive offered is the ad valorem tax exemption. The tax break has been in the county's toolbox for 10 years, but only been used a total of seven times, according to Rasmussen.

County officials recently used the tax exemption for project UpUnder, which is a potential Destin-based company that is expected to start with 67 jobs and grow to a workforce of 350 within five years. The company would be exempt from tangible personal property taxes and real property taxes for 10 years. The exemption would total an estimated $316,304.

Rasmussen said one employer that could potentially locate in Destin is identified at "Project Talking Parents," and is an information technology company. The company currently employs 30 people, but would look to add 20 new jobs (with an average wage of $56,500) and would offer a return on investment of 266 percent, according to the Haas Center.

The company is requesting an ad valorem tax exemption on tangible personal property for 10 years, which would equate to $24,000. While they would be exempt from the ad valorem tax, Rasmussen said the company would still be paying other taxes that would amount to $69,000 over the same 10-year period.

Destin Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Shane Moody told city leaders that the chamber was on board with helping the city any way they could, and would act as partners as an emphasis was placed on economic diversity in Destin.

For Moody, creating an educational component was key and he suggested targeting schools such as an ITT Tech or University of Phoenix. A school offering hospitality is also high on his list.

"There is no better place to teach hospitality than in Destin, Florida," he said.

Since Monday's meeting was only a workshop, there were no decisions made by the council. As they move forward, Rasmussen said the city has a clear path ahead of it.

The first step is to identify the targeted industries they would like to see in the city, then after that city leaders would determine the criteria and incentives that would be in the toolbox. As part of the process, the city must also draft referendum language that would be voted on so it could offer tax exemptions. For the referendum to be included in the March 2014 election, the referendum language would have to be submitted by January 10, City Manager Maryann Ustick said.

While there is plenty of wheels to put in motion still, Rasmussen said the city is on the right page.

"This is not the end game, this is just the beginning of moving forward," she said. "This is just the start to get that ball rolling."