Amazon warehouse coming to Ruskin

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJune 15, 2013 

A deal that the state of Florida has reached with Amazon could be a major boon for employment in the Tampa Bay area, as well as the local economy.

Gov. Rick Scott and Amazon announced the deal Thursday in which the Internet retail giant would create 3,000 new jobs in Florida by 2016 -- with about a third of those likely headed for a 1-million-square-foot warehouse in nearby Ruskin.

But the good news comes with a catch: The new jobs in the state also mean consumers will be required to pay a 6 percent state sales tax on all the books, DVDs, CDs and other products they buy through Amazon.com.

The tax will kick in once the company opens its Florida operations centers, possibly next year.

"Amazon's commitment to create more than 3,000 new jobs in Florida is further proof that we've turned our economy around," Scott said in a statement. "Amazon will continue to work with (state officials) on its ongoing projects which will include a return on any taxpayer investment, and we look forward to the company's announcements as it chooses locations."

Details of the Amazon proposal were included in a packet of information provided to Hillsborough County commissioners.

As part of the agreement, Hills­borough officials will be asked next week to approve nearly $6.6 million in financial incentives for Amazon.

In exchange, Amazon would create 1,000 jobs in the South Shore area of Ruskin near State Road 674 and Interstate 75, and invest up to $200 million in a massive "state of the art facility."

The deal could be good news for Manatee County workers who would have a relatively easy commute to the Amazon warehouse.

Of the 1,000 jobs, 375 would be "higher-wage quality jobs," officials said, with average annual pay of $47,581.

"At that salary range, people would commute," said Sally Hill, a spokeswoman for Suncoast Workforce.

She added Suncoast Workforce has partnered with other regions before to place workers in jobs.

"It's too early to tell how we might partner with them and what we might do," Hill said Friday.

Hillsborough county commissioners were thrilled at the prospect of getting the warehouse in an area that needs an economic boost.

"This is a grand slam for South Shore," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "It's an extraordinary opportunity for Hillsborough County."

Commissioner Sandra Murman, who represents the area where the distribution center is being considered, said she's "ecstatic."

"This is the big silver bullet we've needed to kick off our economic development efforts," Murman said.

The cost to the county would be spread out over seven years starting in 2016. Officials say it would be awarded to the company only if it builds the complex and creates jobs.

"From that point of view, it's a really good value," said county Administrator Mike Merrill. "And South County definitely needs jobs."

It's also good news for local builders who have focused efforts lately on north Manatee which offers a quick commute to Ruskin.

Homebuilder Pat Neal of Neal Communities said Amazon's move to Ruskin, as well as its plans for two other Florida cities, is a big coup for the state.

"The government has been working on Amazon for a long time," the former state senator said. "A 3,000-person employer only comes once in a while."

Neal's developments in Parrish would be a 25-minute drive from the warehouse in Ruskin, and the developer said he's ready to provide homes to the workers if they come.

"What we need is for young people in this community to have jobs," Neal said. "As a homebuilder, I have to say I only sell to folks that retire from Michigan because young people don't have confidence in the housing market."

Neal is building homes with prices starting from $143,000 in Forest Creek and will open Sugar Mill Lakes soon with homes offered from the mid-100s. With $25,000 down on a $150,000 home with a favorable mortgage, the monthly payment after insurance and taxes would be $700 to $800, Neal said. "It's still lower than rent," he said.

Negotiations between Amazon and the state seemed dead last month after Scott signaled that he would not support a proposal that would include -- essentially -- a tax increase for many Floridians. But Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said the deal announced Thursday was not a reversal of his earlier stance but a "culmination of ongoing discussions."

When the facilities are operational, Amazon will begin collecting the 6 percent state sales tax as required under Florida law. A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that an Internet company collects sales taxes only in states where they are physically located, which would eventually include Florida.

"We haven't had a chance to review the proposal," said John Fleming, spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation, an association of 6,000 small and large retailers who are physically located in the state and must levy sales taxes on their transactions. "We'd like to have more details on the time line. There are a lot of questions about location and what type of facilities we're talking about."

The federation has long complained of the unfair advantages online companies like Amazon have. The Florida Retail Federation estimates that the state loses $450 million a year in online sales taxes, with Amazon accounting for about 10 percent to 20 percent of that total.

State officials said they could not provide any more specifics because negotiations are ongoing and confidential under Florida law.

"We are truly in the process of negotiations where it's confidential," said Melissa Medley, chief marketing officer with Enterprise Florida, the public-private economic partnership overseeing the discussions, which could include additional warehouses.

Overall, the state says Amazon would invest $300 million in Florida.

"The company is very forthcoming in saying that they are making a commitment, but we haven't progressed that far into the project to give any details," Medley said.

-- Herald Business Reporter Charles Schelle contributed to this report.

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