By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
Larry Curran has the Bahamas on his mind, but he wishes he didn't.
Volusia is a business-friendly county, but the more a company has, the more help it can get in economic assistance from local governments, Mr. Curran said.
"The way incentives are set up, they're to get businesses to move, not to support those that are set up," he said. "I would love to walk to work (from my Ormond Beach home), but if we have to set up a plant in Freeport, Bahamas, and it's better than here, I'd be crazy to not set up there."
Mr. Curran owns Choose Rain, an upstart water bottler at 1230 N. U.S. 1, Suite 16, in Ormond Beach. He said Volusia County and its cities have few economic incentives that can benefit startup companies like his. So after putting about $160,000 of investors' and his dollars into starting Choose Rain in Volusia, he's thinking about moving to another county or offshore. One of his investors, Les McCall, is a citizen of the United Kingdom. He told Mr. Curran about business incentives in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. The island nation off Florida's southeast coast had a severe unemployment spike in recent years and is doing much to attract manufactures.
"They're offering us (vacant) buildings," Mr. Curran said. "They're talking about deeding buildings to us after five years of continuous employment growth."
The Department of Statistics of the Bahamas reports that in 2009 the country hit a 14.2 percent unemployment rate. That dropped to 13.7 by 2011. The nation does an annual, rather than monthly, unemployment report and hasn't released 2012's figures.
Joe Mannarino, Ormond Beach's economic development director, said he'd like Choose Rain to stay in his city. The best help his department can give local startup companies is guidance, not grants or loans that some would like, he said.
"The fact is 85 percent of (startup businesses) fail in the first year," Mr. Mannarino said. "Local government is not equipped to help with financing to help a local business. It's too risky."
He's spent much time with Mr. Curran to help the 65-year-old launch his business. Among other things, Mr. Mannarino said, he introduced him to local bankers, the Small Business Development Center at Daytona State College and Volusia County's Economic Development Department. That got the ball rolling for Mr. Curran to enter the University of Central Florida's Business Incubator at Daytona Beach International Airport, 601 Innovation Way.
"Having a business incubator, being in it, is an incentive," Rob Ehrhardt, the county's economic development manager, said. "That's an incentive available to businesses locally."
He said that while most startup companies fail within a few years, those in the UCF incubator programs are far more likely to succeed.
Mr. Ehrhardt said new entrepreneurs often haven't learned the skills needed to market their companies to investors and customers alike. Programs such as the Small Business Development Center and business incubator teach those skills and can sometimes help startup companies tap into private grant and loan programs.
Mr. Curran said the business incubator and other programs have helped him understand the dynamics of starting and growing a business, which is why he's upset about the prospect of relocating his bottling facility.
However, he said that as an upstart he's watching the county and cities offer a plethora of state and local business incentives to larger companies to get them to relocate, or stay in the area. Those incentives usually involve performance-based tax abatements.
His company could get some of those incentives, too. If it were large enough. It's not yet. Choose Rain rented a 12,700 square-foot manufacturing facility in Ormond Beach and got the water rights to the roof. Mr. Curran said the company can capture about 2.2 million gallons of rainwater to filter and put it into biodegradable bottles. When things are going full steam ahead, he believes Choose Rain will employ 35 to 50 and bring in about $16 million a year.
Mr. Curran hopes that city and county officials will consider startup-business grant programs in addition to giving advice.
"I do not know how I'd recommend a structure," he said. "It could be it could be (by getting a voter approved) quarter percent of an optional sales tax. I do appreciate the fact the government has been squeezed in this recession."
Mr. Mannarino said he's tried duplicating a loan-pool program he had experience with in Quinsy, Mass., and was successful in getting startup businesses the capital they needed to grow. He said several banks combined money to share risks on new companies. The owners had to go through business-education programs to qualify.
"I thought it would have been a great thing here, but it never got traction," he said. "We couldn't get local banks to come together and provide that service."