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Enterprise Zone Bears Fruit…Boosting Osceola

Enterprise Zone Bears Fruit

Two firms are interested in the Osceola's tax breaks -- and bilingual population.

By April Hunt | Sentinel Staff Writer

December 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE -- Osceola County's nascent enterprise zone already has two serious contenders to bring better-paying jobs to an economy that now relies largely on low-wage service work.

A plan adopted this week by the county and Kissimmee, which must be approved by the state, charts how the zone would lure new business to depressed areas. Like most other economic-development efforts, the plan touts the county's proximity to Orlando as well as its own resources, such as the municipal airport in Kissimmee.

But key for the plan are Osceola's unique demographics: Nearly a third of county residents are Hispanic, most of them from Puerto Rico.

The county has worked for more than two years to turn that factor into a business advantage, trying to recruit firms from the island to expand in Osceola and attract other businesses with the prospect of a fully bilingual work force.

A pharmaceutical company and manufacturing firm have both agreed. The companies, which have not been identified, are both eager to become the first businesses to take advantage of the demographics and the tax breaks available in the new zone, officials say.

"Can you imagine a flu vaccine being made in Osceola County? There is talk that this may be the first step to that happening," said County Commissioner Ken Shipley.

Several businesses have asked about the zone, which offers various tax breaks to companies willing to locate in the designated areas.

In Osceola, the zone includes predominantly black areas, such as Marydia, as well as the languishing commercial strips along South Orange Blossom Trail and U.S. Highway 192.

Although officials won't comment directly, a quick connect-the-dots history shows how the push to play up Osceola's large and growing Hispanic population is helping economic development.

County officials have taken trips to Puerto Rico to encourage expansion into Osceola. The island is home to some large drug-manufacturing plants.

"We have a work force already familiar with how these industries work. It's a good fit," said state Rep. John Quiñones, the Kissimmee Republican who secured the state designation for the zone last year.

Other companies have also asked about qualifying to move into the zone. This interest, even before the state's Office of Tourism and Economic Development signs off on the final boundaries, makes county leaders hopeful that new jobs will soon be on the way.

It is the first time the county's economic development department can help small mom-and-pop firms and retail companies, since the department now must focus only on "targeted" industries, such as corporate headquarters, manufacturing and warehousing.

Those industries tend to pay more than the county's average annual wage, at $24,764 the lowest in Central Florida. The average wage in Orange County is $33,493.

The new jobs in the enterprise zone could end up paying more as well, since they will get tax benefits.

"There are companies that just look for places like this, where they have an incentive," said Maria Grulich, the county's economic development director. "This is a great opportunity and a great boost to the area."

The state is expected to grant the final designation in February.

In the meantime, Quiñones plans to introduce a bill in the spring legislative session that would give manufacturing plants a sales-tax exemption when they partner with state colleges and universities.

"Once we have the whole package, great things will happen," Quiñones said.


Boosting Osceola

Our position: Enterprise-zone plan provides an attractive incentive for businesses.

December 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

It's taken a while for Osceola County to rev its economic engine and take advantage of its ethnic diversity, but the county finally is coming around.

Osceola should move at full speed to get the state to approve the boundaries of a new economic enterprise zone that gives manufacturers and small businesses incentives to locate in depressed areas. Osceola desperately needs to provide better-paying jobs for an economy too dependent on tourism, revitalize needy neighborhoods and boost the Kissimmee airport, an underused asset.

A tried-and-true idea such as an enterprise zone may work best for Osceola, instead of flashy marketing. State Rep. John Quiñones plans to improve on the enterprise zone concept he got the Legislature to approve last year by pushing a bill in the next session giving a sales-tax exemption to manufacturers that partner with community colleges and universities.

Higher education would get extra funds for research and development. Imagine the benefits to the University of Central Florida.

After the enterprise zone is up and running, Osceola should seek to qualify for a federal empowerment zone designation and the federal funds that come with it.

Osceola is about one-third Hispanic, most from Puerto Rico, but the county hasn't taken advantage of its bilingual workforce. This permitted Orange County to leapfrog Osceola several years ago, when Orange drew Banco Popular of Puerto Rico to branch out here. So Osceola is playing catch-up. Now, other island firms are eyeing Osceola in what may be a great match -- and a no-brainer.

By including the community of Marydia inside the enterprise zone, companies who locate in this African-American neighborhood may accelerate the upgrade of water and sewage lines. New jobs may diminish the influence of drugs.

It's a great sign that Osceola finally is getting it, to the potential benefit of its low-wage community.

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