Lee commissioners award $4M to unknown Fortune 500 company

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— Lee County commissioners unanimously approved Tuesday $4.6 million in performance-based incentives to lure an unnamed Fortune 500 company to the county for the relocation of its corporate headquarters.

Commissioners do not yet know the name of the company because of a confidentiality provision in Florida law. They made their decision based on the written agreement and other supporting documents provided to them by the county’s Economic Development Office.

But it’s no leap of faith, said Jim Moore, director of the Economic Development Office.

“I think they’ve made a wise decision,” he said.

As part of the agreement, the company — known as “Project A” in government documents — would commit to employ 700 people at an average wage of $102,000, and it would agree to build and equip a 300,000-square-foot corporate headquarters building at a cost of about $68 million, documents said.

The bulk of the money offered by the county, $4 million doled out in two conditional payments after “Project A” reaches set benchmarks for hiring and capital investments, would come from the taxpayer-funded Financial Incentives for Recruiting Strategic Targets program, which commissioners created in 2008.

FIRST, as the program is known, has produced mixed results.

At least two of the six companies the county has awarded FIRST incentives to have exceeded the number of jobs they committed to create, but two others are in performance limbo.

One of them, VR Laboratories, LLC, spent about $4.7 million of its $5 million FIRST award and has only created about eight of the 208 jobs it promised the county, according to documents.

Commissioner Frank Mann said he struggled with his decision to vote in favor of the “Project A” agreement. He disagreed with the way the county has run the $25 million FIRST program.

“Frankly, I need to clear my conscience,” Mann said. “Of the $25 million, $5 million was VR Labs, and that is questionable at best, and that is the most charitable thing I can say about that project.”

The fact that “Project A” is anonymous did not sit well with Mann either, but he said the agreement between the county and Project A corrects past management mistakes.

“The bottom line is that we don’t extend one penny of your taxpayers’ dollars in this project until the applicant has expended his own money in a major way,” Mann said. “This is vastly different from where we funded ... VR Labs from the first dollar on a brand new company.”

Commissioner Tammy Hall said FIRST “has been a great program” overall.

“We do owe an apology to the residents of Lee County ... because this board did not handle that particular incentive well,” she said. “But I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

She said the people who mishandled the VR Laboratories agreement no longer work at the county.

Berg said the remaining $600,000 the county could pay out would come from the Lee County Job Opportunity program. It would be used to meet the county’s 20 percent match of the Florida Qualified Target Industry program, a conditional tax relief incentive that the state can offer to job-creating businesses from targeted industries including life sciences, aviation and aerospace, and homeland security and defense.

Moore told commissioners that the state of Florida will also pitch in money from its own financial incentive funds.

Though the state is expected to contribute a substantial incentives package, the Economic Development Office could not confirm the amount because it has not been finalized yet, said Jennifer Berg, marketing and communications director for the Lee County Economic Development Office.

Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership focused on statewide economic development, has joined with Lee County on this negotiation since the beginning, according to Moore. But Enterprise Lee said in a written statement that it could “neither confirm nor deny that an economic development project exists in Lee County.”

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