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  • | 4:00 a.m. October 29, 2009
  • Sarasota
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Sarasota “economic development” officials continue their starry-eyed search for the economic pot of gold at the end of the Hollywood rainbow.

Oh sure, it’s entertaining to see local politicians and assorted officials babbling like star-struck Gomer Pyle wannabes about the possibility of Hollywood stars gracing our fair fly-over town. You can almost here them saying, “I’m important! I really, really am!”

And so it was that a crew of politicians that included Sarasota Mayor Dick Clapp and County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, Sarasota County Economic Development Corp. officials and county film department employees trotted out the red-carpet treatment last week to some movie industry types.

They tooled around town in BMWs, dined on a three-course champagne lunch atop the Bank of America building, cruised Sarasota Bay and stayed at the Longboat Key Club and Resort. It was truly star treatment.

There is something distasteful in seeing such lavishing of local resources on so little promise, particularly when most local businesses are barely staying alive and small manufacturers are looking for any help to buy some new equipment. No matter how bad things are, there is always money to throw at baseball teams or pour down a purple hole or spread at the feet of Hollywood moguls. A fool and his money …

But the bigger problem is that all of this tomfoolery inevitably leads to bad policy, and sometimes much worse.

Make no mistake, the Hollywood folks scout out locales for a lot of reasons, but financial gimmes from the local yahoos seem to be at the top. They’ve learned what every major league sports owner and big company promising jobs has learned: Local politicians will give away big bucks of other people’s money for high-profile “successes.”

The Hollywood elites themselves are Class A hypocrites on this issue. Their politics are ever in favor of more government and more taxes, just so long as the taxes are not on them. They don’t mind the working slugs getting nicked more. But they will go to enormous lengths to avoid taxes or, better yet, get cash from the local yokels.

Take Iowa.

The rural Midwest state, known for its progressive politics and policies, established a program where movie companies could get a 50% tax credit when shooting them in the Hawkeye state. And, sure enough, about 22 films took in $32 million from the good, hard-working folk of Iowa the past few years, according to a Wall Street Journal article. And hundreds more were in the pipeline totaling hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

All of that is probably kaput now, because corruption and incompetence — who could have seen that coming? — consumed the program, which has been put on hold.

The moral — other than the obvious government-is-not-the-solution — is that if we really want movie stars in our presence, we’ll have to pay dearly for them. Sure, palm trees, beaches, cool mansions on the water — are all nice. But plenty of communities in Florida have those. The movie guys will be looking for hard cash.

We may not be the rubes that Iowa politicians appear to have been, but, alas, we are rubes nonetheless.
Despite the severe budget cuts, the Legislature did find $11 million this year for the Florida Film, Television and Digital Media Incentive Program. And Sarasota County has its own giveaways, including entertainment industry tax incentives and the EDC’s array of incentives.

Targeted tax breaks are bad policy. They are social engineering via tax code and invariably are used by pompous politicians to retain power and influence — after all, they know what is best for us — rather than allowing taxpaying businesses freedom and latitude to create jobs and wealth.

There is a better way. Quit chasing tinsel dreams like camera-less paparazzi and just create a climate that is friendly to businesses and entrepreneurs, startups and established companies. The formula is simple.
Keep regulations low and taxes lower and treat businesses like customers, not milk cows for politicians’ personal aggrandizement.

But don’t expect the Clapps and Barbettas to prefer such common sense. Apparently the only developments they like are those that last for three weeks and involve celebrities.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected]