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City Council member Garrett Dennis
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jun. 2, 201612:00 PM EST

City adding incentives to attract businesses to distressed areas

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by: David Chapman

Jacksonville has seen its share of new and expanding businesses over the years.

Whether it’s growth at Southside office parks or additions to the port and Cecil Commerce Center, the city hasn’t lacked gains since before the recession.

Yet, not all areas have seen that progress, although more city help could be on the way. Northwest Jacksonville, the Eastside, parts of the Northside and Westside — code-named projects are flocking to those areas.

Even small- and mid-size companies look past the more downtrodden spots on the way to more desirable areas of town.

It’s been an issue officials have wrestled with for decades: How can Jacksonville attract companies and business opportunities to areas that need those most?

The latest update to the city’s economic incentives policy might be a way. A special City Council committee for more than three years has been tweaking how and what the city offers to lure businesses.

That guide to offering perks to new and growing businesses has a section dedicated to economically distressed zones.

Those areas are defined as having an unemployed labor force equal to or greater than 125 percent of the county average or a median household income equal to or less than 60 percent of the county average. Or both in the worst scenarios.

“These places need infrastructure,” said council member Reggie Brown, who represents District 10, which includes areas that fall under being worst off. “They need some help,” he said.

Help can come in many ways, but from the public side it means money and opportunities not afforded to other areas.

Outside of codifying a scoring matrix that determines value of all deals, the incentives for those areas are probably the biggest change to the policy, said Kirk Wendland, the city’s Office of Economic Development director.

Recapture Enhanced Value grants and Qualified Targeted Industry grants are common methods seen for larger projects that improve infrastructure or create jobs.

The rules have been altered to benefit those in economically distressed areas.

For REV grants, wages for newly created jobs have to be greater or equal to 60 percent of Duval County’s average — not 100 percent as with similar grants elsewhere.

For REV grants, if a company meets the state requirement on wages for new jobs in those challenged areas, the city will add a 100 percent local match to what it typically pays. Companies bringing targeted industries but not meeting the wage standard would still be eligible for bonuses for each job created.

Add in a facade renovation program and another to assist purchases machinery and equipment and officials believe it’s a combination that will help the long-struggling areas compete.

“I think it will work,” said council member Garrett Dennis, who represents District 9 that has some of the areas. “The city is trying to help, but we can’t force them (businesses) to go there.”

Dennis said he plans this summer to organize a group of businesses in his district that will be able to sell his region’s story and attract other companies.

The newer perks with lower standards should be attractive to businesses looking at options, said council member John Crescimbeni, who spent three years leading the committee that updated the city’s policy.

However, he is cautious about the programs, too. Council members frequently have waived requirements for companies seeking incentives in the past. He wants to draw the line with these. With waivers, the impact wouldn’t be realized and companies simply would use the bonuses in other areas outside those most distressed.

“If we waive that, we’re stupid,” he said.

Programs like REV grants and QTIs are fairly easy, he said, as they are reimbursements or sums paid out after jobs are created.

Other programs in the policy, such as the facade grant or newly added perks dealing with attracting film and television business, will need funding that will be hard to come by in the short-term.

“It’ll be a matter of priorities,” said Crescimbeni.

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