You may hear remarks about how there’s nothing for young people in Highlands County, but Meghan DiGiacomo and Taylor Benson turn that misnomer upside down in an instant. Both attended Sebring High School and graduated within two years of each other before going off to college and returning home. Now these young women are hard at work building the community they love.

Benson graduated in 2005 and attended University of Florida to earn her Bachelor’s in Business and Public Relations. She started working for the American Le Mans Series in Atlanta before returning to the Heartland to work in communications with Polk County government. In July 2016, Benson came back home to serve as the Economic Development Manager for Highlands County.

DiGiacomo graduated in 2007 then earned her undergraduate degree in management, before going continuing on to a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Central Florida. She worked for the Small Business Development Center in Orlando then moved to Enterprise Florida. Opportunity arose in 2017 for her to come back home to serve as the Economic Development’s Business Development Manager.

For those unaware of exactly what our Economic Development office handles, Benson explained how she, DiGiacomo, Dana Riddell and Racheal Barry of the Development Services Offices, our five county commissioners, 14 IDA board members, a director, the County Administrator and Assistant County Administrator all work together to serve the business needs of 102,000 residents in Highlands County. “It is a lot of people working together on defined goals and tactics to create a community where businesses thrive.”

With over 2,200 businesses in the county, the EDC focuses on facilitating the industries which will bring high wage jobs and provide ongoing positive impact to our local economy. DiGiacomo added, “We target companies which create products and services that go out of the community to bring better stability into the local economy.”

Explaining how this eliminates the recycling of the money within one small region, the duo works diligently to target businesses such as manufacturing, logistics, distribution or agriculture. Value-added agricultural business, such as a base product like corn which is then turned into feed or citrus pulp developed into a frozen snack, are two examples of this powerful economic engine.

A division of Highlands County government, the office is housed under development services along with related departments such as building, zoning, planning, code enforcement, tourism and transportation planning. “It creates a one-stop shop and streamlines processes for economic development,” added Benson. “Having a business friendly community is key to creating a thriving market that will boost local economy and provide high-paying jobs.”

Passionate about seeing her hometown grow, Benson finds her position the perfect fit for her energy, experience and skill set. “My family owns D.E. Carson Construction, so I understand the importance of small business in the community.”

Acknowledging most people fall into economic development for a career, DiGiacomo found herself really enjoying the field when she worked in it at the state level. “My family owns Artistic Spas and Pools, so we understand the needs of local business too. This community was a great place to grow up and we want to help ensure it stays that way.”

Pointing to recent success with the Harder Hall property, this 45-million capital investment project is expected to bring at least 60 well-paying jobs and provide a senior living facility. Quick to point out how no tax dollars are included in this mind-bending dollar figure, Benson explained that it is all private investment money.

“No public funds are contributed to industrial revenue bonds, and no government entities, including the county and IDA, are responsible for the repayment or guarantee of those bonds.” Industrial revenue bonds are created by the Internal Revenue Code and provide a source of long-term, below market-rate financing for eligible projects. Bonds are paid solely from the revenues generated by the project or by the company receiving the funds. “Best of all, they have experience with this type and scale of project,” added Benson. Due to the inclusion of historic tax credits, the nature of the exterior main building will be historically revitalized, adding to the overall value of the property.

With our equidistant location to major cities such as Orlando, Tampa and Ft. Myers, 86 percent of the state’s population and major tourist destinations are just a short drive away. “It’s an attractive quality of life here. We have the benefits of small town living such as low crime and little congestion, but all the urban amenities are within driving distance.”

DiGiacomo urged other young adults to consider how serving in a smaller community affords a very unique opportunity. “You are able to make an impact right where you live for the years to come.” Acknowledging the Economic Development is a long game, meaning the timeline for large scale projects to come to fruition requires a lot of behind the scenes work, results take years.

“Working with utility companies, school systems, other businesses and municipalities, just to name a few, means these projects take time.”

It also requires an educated and skilled workforce.

The pair attends career fairs to point out the benefits of education and immersion into their home community. “We help students know what they need to do to succeed in the opportunities coming to our region.”

“There are over 1,000 jobs available right now,” stressed DiGiacomo, suggesting job seekers or those in search of new opportunities look into Career Source Florida and Career Source Heartland. “The South Florida State College also offers excellent corporate educational programs and certificate programs as well as degrees.”

Looking for a new job in 2019? Check out employflorida.com for new opportunities or southflorida.edu to browse all that South Florida State College has to offer.

Want to know more about what the EDC is up to?

Log onto highlandsbusiness.com and read more about projects, local business development or sign up for their newsletter to be included in upcoming surveys as you stay on top of all things business in Highlands County.

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