Baker’s Dozen: Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation

January 3, 2013

Michael Eng | Plant City Observer

Jake Austin, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation’s new Plant City-based project manager of business retention and expansion, isn’t too keen on wearing a tie. And, he’s more comfortable standing inside a manufacturing plant than sitting around a conference table in some high-rise in downtown Tampa.

That’s precisely why EDC President and CEO Rick Homans hired him.

Austin, through a unique partnership between the EDC, Plant City and Tampa Electric Company, will serve as a cheerleader of sorts for Plant City and its surrounding communities. With an office in Historic Downtown Plant City, he’ll be the EDC’s eyes and ears for the community’s unique needs and amenities — and, hopefully, market them accordingly.

“His role is to be the evangelist for Plant City and Eastern Hillsborough,” Homans says.

Austin is the EDC’s first project manager who will operate primarily outside of its Tampa headquarters. Originally from Lakeland, Austin enlisted in the U.S. Air Force following high school. After a six-year deployment, he returned to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship from Western Kentucky University. He was working in economic development in Kentucky when this new position became available.

“This opportunity was perfect for me,” he says.

And, if all goes as planned, Austin’s hiring will be perfect for Plant City, as well.

The idea for an on-site manager began from a conversation between Homans and City Manager Greg Horwedel. As Homans learned of Plant City’s strengths as a community, he realized those strengths weren’t the ones the EDC had been promoting before his arrival.

Homans took the helm of the EDC 11 months ago, following a long career in New Mexico. Originally from Boston, Homans spent more than three decades in New Mexico, where he served in the cabinet of Gov. Bill Richardson — first as secretary of economic development and subsequently as secretary of taxation and revenue.

“In New Mexico, there are large urban areas with lots of rural communities,” he says. “We found that, over the years, each community had its own heart and soul. And the more time we spent there and discovered that, we found there were people in each who would never live any place else.

“(In business development) it’s important to be close to the businesses there and also the politicians,” he says. “You need to be in the community, hang out at Fred’s and be at the City Commission. That’s what worked in New Mexico, and we have the same opportunity here.”

Horwedel points to several aspects of Plant City as incentives for business development: the size of available parcels; proximity to Interstate 75 and State Road 60; railroads; and utility infrastructure.

Furthermore, he, along with Homans and Austin, will focus on several types of businesses in the new year: manufacturing; food preparation and packaging; agribusiness; and, perhaps most exciting, nutraceuticals.

Nutraceuticals are products derived from plants that are refined to pharmaceutical-grade qualities and used to treat a variety of ailments and diseases. The products are gaining popularity worldwide, and Horwedel believes Plant City is the perfect location for the trend to continue in the United States.

“It’s taking what nature has provided and enhancing that to target specific diseases,” he says. “We should be ground zero for (nutraceuticals) in the U.S.”

Horwedel hopes to attract research and development, which has grown in areas such as the Far East and India, to Plant City.

“We want them to know that we welcome you, we have the tools of your trade, a great workforce and low taxes,” he says. “We have a heck of a lot to offer. We want to broaden Plant City’s exposure to the world.”

As Austin settles in to his new role, he’ll spend the first few months meeting existing business owners to learn about specific needs of the community. He’ll also examine various sites available and work to match those with expanding companies.

“We have to figure out which companies make the most sense,” Austin says. “And we also have to raise the profile of the area.”

To that end, Austin and the EDC also will develop the marketing materials companies require when selecting an expansion site. The EDC plans to have that information readily available on its website to help speed up the process.

Homans says the EDC will analyze its progress quarterly. He is confident the new position will show gains for Plant City and the surrounding area.

“It’s all about finding the companies with the best fit and not trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” he says. “This makes all the sense in the world.”

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