Immokalee’s Enterprise Zone – along with Florida’s other 64 Enterprise Zones – is under a severe threat again in the Florida Legislature.
Revived in 2005 and set to sunset at the end of 2015, unless the Legislature acts to save them, Enterprise Zones offer the most cost-effective program in the Sunshine State for job creation, entrepreneurial encouragement and a ticket out of poverty for small businesses seeking to find a firm financial footing in today’s marketplace.
In Immokalee alone, its Enterprise Zone has provided over $200,000 in tax incentives and other assistance to nearly 20 businesses over the past decade.
But those efforts may face troubled waters in the Florida Senate where Senate Commerce & Tourism Committee Chair, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has been quoted saying she will not allow any discussion of Enterprise Zone extensions to come before her committee.
Southwest Florida’s senior lawmaker in the upper house, State Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, also serves on the Senate Commerce Committee and efforts are being directed at all lawmakers with nearby ties to persuade them of the value and continuing need for Enterprise Zone benefits in Immokalee and around the state.
"Enterprise Zones across the state have helped curb a shortage of investment, in both local community support and in private capital, experienced by the state's deteriorating areas," said Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of the independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research institute and government watchdog, Florida TaxWatch. "Our comprehensive analysis of Florida's Enterprise Zones calls for substantial legislative reforms that will increase the program's efficacy and value to taxpayers and each of the communities they were established to serve."
TaxWatch produced its report earlier this month and focused on several key highlights and often overlooked benefits of the program, including:
- It is one of the only economic development programs available for retail businesses.
- It supports and encourages businesses which provide necessary service to the communities in which the businesses are located: food and medication, for example.
- Because it requires relatively little of Florida’s massive state budget it is the single most cost-effective economic development program in the Sunshine State.
Does all this mean the Enterprise Zone program should remain untouched and unchanged? Absolutely not.
TaxWatch and Enterprise Zone managers all agree the program would benefit from some needed reforms.
Marketing efforts should be increased, TaxWatch suggested, to encourage more small businesses to take advantage of the program. Reporting metrics and methods should be brought up to modern standards and, like many other state programs, the transparency of Enterprise Zones can be improved.
"Enterprise Zones meet a need that no other program can," said Bob Swindell, Chairman of the Florida Economic Development Council and President and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. "While Enterprise Zones aren't attracting the state's largest companies with the highest-paying jobs, they are directly affecting the quality of life for residents of the state's most isolated and deteriorating areas."
"Enterprise Zones are a vital tool to encourage economic development and provide needed jobs to Floridians in low-income urban and rural areas," said Amy Evancho, President of the Florida Economic Development Council. "The Florida Legislature must act to make smart reforms to ensure this valuable tool continues to provide essential services, such Florida's economically depressed areas."
“Local Enterprise Zone advocates are also pushing for reform, in addition to a lengthy extension of the program,” explained Bradley Muckel, executive director of the Immokalee CRA and the Immokalee Enterprise Zone.
“The Enterprise Zone Development Agency in Immokalee recently voted by unanimous decision to send letter to all key political gatekeepers of the program voicing their concern over the looming December 2015 sunset date,” he said.
Key reform points include lowering the barriers of entry into the program, which would allow very small businesses to participate in the numerous rebate programs which fall under the Enterprise Zone umbrella.
“For example, the minimum expenditure thresholds within the Building Equipment Sales Tax Rebate Program should be lowered from $5000 to $500 per piece,” Muckel suggested. “Also, the full-time employee requirement dictated by the Property Tax Credit Program should be lowered from five full-time employees to two FTE’s (full time equivalents). "