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Clearwater economic development plan works
Two years into the 10-year plan, city officials are pleased with its progress
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CLEARWATER – With two full years of data under their belts, city officials have proclaimed their 10-year Economic Development Strategic Plan a success.

“The Economic Development Strategic Plan was adopted in November 2011,” a staff memo to the Clearwater City Council explains. “The plan’s guiding principles include pursuit of tax base diversification, higher-paying jobs, and business vitality to achieve economic vitality. Specifically, the plan establishes five goals, 18 strategies and 64 action items, which together provide a roadmap for implementation.”

“We’re very pleased with the results,” Denise Sanderson, the city’s Assistant Director of Economic Development and Housing, said in a telephone interview shortly after she presented her findings to the City Council at its Feb. 18 work session. “We’re seeing some nice data coming out of our community.”

In a PowerPoint presentation to the council, Sanderson explained that the plan’s five goals are proper land use, a friendly investment climate, improved business retention and expansion, increased business development and a sense of talent and place. The six strategies with the highest priorities are an employment center along US 19, a technology district in the Community Redevelopment Area, a medical district near Morton Plant Hospital, an incentive policy and new tools to attract the desired development, a business retention and expansion program, and public amenities and aesthetics.

“A workforce environment with higher skills will be an entry-level requirement for the growth industries of the coming decade,” Sanderson told the council.

Industries that the city hopes to attract include finance and insurance, computer software, health and human performance, professional services, high-tech electronics and instruments, marine and ecological activities, and data management, analytics and services.

Last year, Sanderson said, the city concentrated on developing incentive programs and tools, implementing a program to retain and expand existing businesses, supporting and engaging a technology district, setting zoning and design standards for the US 19 corridor, developing and implementing a marketing plan, and establishing benchmarks to measure success. Incentives such as an ad valorem tax exemption and a “Virtual Incubator Program” were used to encourage job creation and capital investment. Other incentive tools included a utility tax exemption, a fee waiver or reimbursement, rental assistance, a master lease parking agreement, and fast-track permitting.

To promote business retention and expansion, city staffers conducted 284 business visits, created or updated flyers and a Web page, created a social media group linked to the Tampa Bay Partnership, and created a medical asset map. To create a technology district, they identified twelve tech companies with 500 to 600 employees each and 24 such companies with at least 800 employees each, formed a six-member Technology Council and conducted an IT infrastructure study. They also encouraged property owners to retain existing IT businesses and attract new ones, expanded the Technology Council and approved incentive to encourage expansion. In addition, they developed a marketing plan that includes social media, a website, press releases, collateral materials, and e-communications.

Plans for this year include an incentives policy and a business retention and improvement program that includes target industries, emphasis on the Hercules and US 19 corridors, technical and medical districts, a “Virtual Incubator Program,” and coordinated support for start-up companies. To promote and market these goals, the city plans to hire an economic development specialist, implement a marketing plan, and “use data to drive marketing.”
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