September 2, 2014

Around the State

Global Concerns
Healthy phosphate companies say a tax break in Florida will help keep them competitive overseas.

Florida's phosphate industry, centered around Lakeland in Polk County, looks very different than it did in the early 1990s when 22 U.S. companies had operations in the state. Then, flooding on the Mississippi River shaved the domestic market for fertilizer, and the collapse of the former Soviet Union and instability in China and India carved into international demand. Fertilizer prices fell and the industry went into a tailspin. What followed was a major consolidation that has seen the number of companies with Florida operations fall to seven. Today, the industry appears robust: It has enjoyed four consecutive years of stability, with employment holding steady at about 8,000 jobs statewide. Demand projections remain strong for 1999, and phosphate reserves could last another hundred years.

So why was the industry among the businesses handed a total of $1 billion in tax breaks by the Legislature this spring? Industry executives say the multimillion-dollar sales tax exemption for new machinery and equipment will help keep mining companies healthy in an environment that increasingly depends on the stability of international trading partners.

The sales tax break primarily will benefit two agri-chemical corporations, IMC-Agrico and Farmland Hydro LP. Each could save about $5 million if they get the OK to open two planned mines. IMC's mine in DeSoto and Farmland's in Hardee are going through the regulatory process, which could take several years. The mines, which would create up to 650 jobs in two counties where unemployment generally runs double the state average, have been in the works for years.

Rep. Edward Healey, D-West Palm Beach, and Rep. Marjorie Turnbull, D-Tallahassee, voted against the legislation, which passed nearly unanimously. They say it amounted to nothing more than a gift to a special interest. "This administration is hell-bent on giving it all back," says Healey, who doesn't believe "anybody is overtaxed in this state."

David Batt, president of the Florida Phosphate Council, sees it as a gesture of support to an industry that is traditionally heavily regulated and taxed. He says it helps Florida's phosphate industry compete with countries such as Morocco, a large exporter whose phosphate is not as taxed or regulated. Batt adds that global volatility also will effect whether new mining operations come online. "The sales tax exemption gives us a competitive edge," he says.

In the News

Bradenton - Tropicana Products Inc. is talking to four developers in Manatee and Sarasota counties about developing 75,000 square feet of new office space. Possible sites include the waterfront "Sandpile" property in downtown Bradenton, Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County and two downtown Sarasota locations. Tropicana expects to finalize its selection soon.

Clearwater - The city of Clearwater plans to clean up 200 acres of old industrial "brownfields" areas in two local communities. The federal government is helping with $500,000 in grant money that will go into a fund to provide low-interest loans aimed at spurring development.

Haines City - Pompano Beach-based Pavermodule of Florida opened a $4.8 million plant here where it will manufacture multicolored concrete pavers. The new plant initially will employ a production staff of 12 and expects to double staffing by the fall.

Lakeland - Providing better access to Tampa and Orlando, the Polk Parkway will open a second stretch of new highway this August, one year after the first phase opened. The new 11-mile section of the $471 million toll road extends from Lakeland to U.S. 92 East. The final 7.4-mile leg, expected to open by January, will connect U.S. 92 to Interstate 4.

Construction will begin soon on a 78-room Marriott Courtyard hotel in west Lakeland, which will occupy a three-acre lot in the Oakbridge planned community.

Sarasota/Charlotte - Visitors' bureaus in Sarasota and Charlotte counties are teaming up in a regional marketing venture to promote their cities as year-round destinations to international tourists. The print campaign, targeting primarily German and British markets, will begin this fall. Talks are under way to include other Florida counties along the Gulf of Mexico. Tourists visiting Sarasota and Charlotte in 1998 spent $821 million.

St. Petersburg - Tenants for the planned BayWalk plaza in downtown include The Gap, GapKids, Ruby Tuesday, Fort Lauderdale-based bookseller Brainfood! and Key West Confections. Construction of the 150,000-sq.-ft. complex, which will feature a 20-screen Muvico cinema, could begin in August, with completion in late 2000.

The city's newest Business Development Center, which opened this spring on the south side, is collaborating with Working Capital Florida. The Miami organization set up shop here to provide collateral-free business assistance loans, starting at $500, to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Despite a dip in ballpark attendance, the city's property appraiser says baseball has been good to the city's tax rolls. Tropicana Field helped contribute to a 68% increase in property values since last year.

Office vacancy rates in downtown St. Petersburg continue to hold steady at 9.3%, down from nearly 40% just three years ago, although New York-based Delma Properties has put the City Center building downtown up for sale. The asking price hasn't been disclosed, but the 12-story, 239,000-sq.-ft. building is appraised at about $9.5 million.

Tampa -- Wachovia Corp. will base its Florida operations here. The North Carolina banking entity is expanding in the state and plans to open six new branches around Tampa Bay, increasing the number of local employees from 14 to 81.

Dallas buyout firm Engles Urso Follmer Capital Corp. recently purchased the Lykes Bros. juice division for an unconfirmed $175 million. The division had accounted for about 50% of Lykes' $1.05 billion in annual revenues. Engles Urso plans to merge Lykes' juice business with its Florida Global Citrus operations and could focus on niche markets rather than competing directly with juice giants like Tropicana and Minute Maid.

MetLife is adding 40 jobs at its Tampa center following its acquisition of Lincoln National Life Insurance Co.'s disability income business. Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Lincoln sold MetLife 68,000 disability income policies this spring. MetLife employs 1,400 in the Bay area.

The U.S. government has joined a whistleblower suit brought by a Tampa employee against nursing home and hospital chain Vencor Inc. The suit, unsealed in Tampa's U.S. District court, alleges Vencor double-billed Medicare for nursing home patients. Louisville, Ky.-based Vencor owns three hospitals and four nursing homes in the area.

Overheard

Douglas Palley, president of telemarketing firm Unitel, should have learned his lesson the time he told a local TV reporter that the best way to get off a phone solicitation list is to tell the caller you'd died. Next thing he knew, "Good Morning America" was broadcasting his advice to the nation. Now, another press gaffe has gotten him into trouble -- in his native state of Florida. In announcing a move of 400 telemarketing jobs from Frostburg, Md., to Lakeland, Palley told a Maryland newspaper reporter there just weren't enough aggressive people in the laid-back mountain town of Frostburg for Unitel's telemarketing team. By the time the story hit the wires, the spin was this: Palley was moving because his Frostburg employees were too nice; he needed the brash and assertive types plentiful in southwest Florida. Palley, who grew up in Bradenton, insists the story, which showed up in newspapers around the world, took his remarks out of context. Frostburg, a town of 8,100, simply didn't have a large enough labor pool. The Lakeland operation will tap a population of more than 200,000 between Tampa and Orlando. "We have already hired a bunch of people there, and they're all very nice," says Palley. "In fact, you could argue that Floridians are some of the nicest people in the country." Palley better say that. His mom lives in Tampa.

... A year after the merger of human resource services firms Payroll Transfers Inc. of Tampa and Employee Management Inc. of New Jersey, the company is changing its name to Epix Holdings Corp. and considering going public. Epix, Florida's largest privately held professional employer organization (PEO), had first-quarter pre-tax earnings of $1 million, a 40% increase over the same period last year. The company operates with dual CEOs, Tom Taylor in Tampa and Steven Rosenthal in Woodbridge, N.J., who will share the titles of president and CEO.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Southwest, Business Florida

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