CLEARWATER — Despite uncertainties about money for a local match, Pinellas County commissioners voted, 5-2, March 12 to continue work toward securing a grant to fund construction of a Tampa Bay Innovation Center incubator.
Commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters voted no.
The county submitted a request for $9 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in September 2018 to fund design and construction of a 45,000 square-foot business incubator. At that time, commissioners committed to a $3 million local match.
The $3 million was supposed to come from the sale of the Young-Rainey STAR Center; however, that plan didn’t come to fruition. Bids for the sale came in much lower than staff had anticipated, and the commission decided to keep the property and redevelop it.
When the decision was made to keep the STAR Center, the EDA grant award was still pending.
The EDA has since said that Pinellas is being considered for a $7.46 million grant, according to Mike Meidel, Economic Development director. But, the county would need a local match of $4.54 million, which is 38 percent of the project cost.
With the sale of the STAR Center off the table, the question now is where to get the money for a local match.
Potential sources include the General Fund, Penny for Pinellas or even sale of surplus county property. The state will be asked to provide $1 million. Private investors could help pay an estimated $1 million in additional money needed for equipment, Meidel said.
However, the most likely funding source would be Penny for Pinellas. Collections that begin in 2020 will set aside about $83 million over 10 years for economic development. During an agenda briefing March 7, Bill Berger, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the construction part of the project would be a permissible use of Penny money.
Meidel believes the incubator project would be a good fit for Penny for Pinellas, but it still needs to be vetted by a review committee that will create guidelines and make recommendations on how the share of money for economic development would be spent.
The committee is scheduled to meet for the first time March 25. It is made up of planning staff from the county and the largest municipalities, and includes representatives from the beach and smaller cities.
County Administrator Barry Burton said he has some concerns about moving ahead.
“But I’m hesitant to pass up an opportunity like this,” he said.
Meidel admitted the timing was “awkward.” The county had to respond to the EDA by March 18 or risk losing the grant.
Commissioner Ken Welch pointed out that the city of St. Petersburg had been holding the land the proposed incubator would be constructed on for years because of the county’s plans. The city has agreed to give the land to the county after the building is constructed.
Meidel said St. Petersburg was one of many partners, including the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, that have been involved in the process for several years.
“We have a lot of partners in this,” Meidel said March 7.
Meidel championed the project. He said it would serve all of Pinellas and would likely attract regional participation because it would not only provide space for developing companies, it also would provide access to counselors and other professionals, such as attorneys and financial planners that could assist them.
“We will get national attention,” he said. “Nobody does this — building a new facility from the ground up.”
Most commissioners, except Eggers and Peters, want to continue to work with the EDA while staff explores funding sources. One concern is that if the county says no, it probably wouldn’t be considered for another grant anytime soon.
Besides the question of the match money, Eggers also is unhappy about so much funding being concentrated in south Pinellas. He would like to have a business incubator in north county.
“We can relook at our approach or ultimately we can turn it (the grant) down,” Burton said March 7.
Meidel said if the county was going to turn it down, it should do it sooner rather than later.
He pointed out at the March 12 meeting that if EDA awarded the grant, details would have to be negotiated. Terms and conditions would come back to the commission for approval.
Seel said she still had some concerns.
“But we only need $4.5 million to get a 45,000 square-foot building. We’ve been working on this for four-five years and now we’re able to make it a reality.”
Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.