Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

JEDC's Enterprise Zone Gets Fuzzy; Requirements for Incentives Being Relaxed in Certain Cases

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

JEDC's Enterprise Zone Gets Fuzzy; Requirements for Incentives Being Relaxed in Certain Cases

Article excerpt

Byline: JOE LIGHT

At a special meeting in late October, the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission took one step down what JEDC Executive Director Ron Barton described as a "slippery slope." Late last month, the City Council took another step, using an exemption in a state statute to allow it to include two businesses in Jacksonville's Enterprise Zone which did not meet the poverty or unemployment criteria normally needed to qualify.

The revised Enterprise Zone would allow several businesses not in areas that the state considers to be economically distressed to collect Enterprise Zone benefits, which include property and sales tax breaks.

The state still needs to approve the revised zone before it can take effect.

JEDC Chair Ceree Harden said that the inclusion of the two other properties threatened to politicize a process that the commission has struggled to make fact-based.

"We're trying to set objective criteria. You could theoretically use this exemption and include everybody," he said. "Otherwise it becomes a matter of politics in every case."

An Enterprise Zone is an area targeted for economic revitalization which, in Jacksonville, makes up much of downtown and parts of the west and northwest areas of the city. Businesses inside the zone can apply for state and local incentives and can also receive incentives for hiring residents who reside in a zone.

But in order to qualify, nominated areas must have a poverty rate of 20 percent or more and an unemployment rate more than the state average. Officials can also include areas that have no population, in a provision that Barton said was intended to allow cities to revitalize rural areas.

At a JEDC meeting on Oct. 27, four companies applied to be included in the zone. Although only one met the normal criteria for inclusion, commissioners approved the applications of two projects, including one made by Prudential Financial Inc. Later, the City Council decided to include the other two properties, redrawing the Enterprise Zone boundary around the two businesses to not include any residents.

At an earlier meeting, Prudential vice president Mike Jennings said company officials had no need of the normal Enterprise Zone benefits and only wanted to take advantage of a state tax break for insurance companies in the zone. He agreed to waive the normal enterprise zone incentives if included.

JEDC staff determined that the census tract block group containing Prudential met neither the poverty nor the unemployment criteria, but noted that commissioners could draw the boundary of the zone around the Prudential building itself.

Because no one resides in the Prudential building, officials would consider the zone to have no population.

"With the revised language in the statute, you have a great deal of latitude with little need to adhere to analytical rationale for your decision or to address the distressed criteria intent of the original Enterprise Zone Program," wrote Barton in a letter to commissioners. …

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