There is a line where government's encouraging private business turns into government's getting into private business, and Leesburg is standing at the line.
It's time to back away.
Sunday's column detailed half the plan to build a Florida Energy and Aerospace Technology Park. That portion involves efforts by the city to bring companies to the proposed park, which would be constructed on 3,300 acres that Leesburg owns near Florida's Turnpike.
The city has been negotiating with five companies, and if the first two decide to come, Leesburg won't have to invest much money because the companies could be situated on lots with direct access to County Road 470. Excellent. Up to 600 jobs without major cash investment. That's the way it should be.
Later — if needed — the city could construct roads and utilities for the technology park to accommodate more firms.
The second half of the technology park plan, which staffers have been quietly working on for months, is the portion that Leesburg commissioners immediately should halt.
It involves building not one but two 2,500-foot runways, hangars and a machine shop to attract manufacturers of light sport aircraft.
Experts have been predicting that LSAs, as they are called, will take off financially as the hot new trend in aviation. LSAs are more affordable than small, fixed-wing aircraft and are considered by many to be safer than ultralight planes. Flying an LSA doesn't require the strict medical exam that older fliers sometimes have a hard time passing.
Aviation gurus have been predicting this economic boomlet since 2004, when the new category of aircraft was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In truth, while there may be a demand, the laborious and expensive process of getting an LSA approved as airworthy by the FAA is one that naturally separates the wanna-be companies from those with design expertise and legitimate financial backing.
For Leesburg to build a "lab" with expensive, complicated machinery that startup companies would share is to court the bottom of the barrel in aviation. The serious folks are well on their way to building LSAs without a government buying a machine shop for them.
For its part, Leesburg would have to invest at least $1.5 million in runways and another $2 million for the machine shops and hangars for the craft being constructed.
Then, it would have to cross its fingers and hope that one of these companies could pay the rent to use the hangars and machines. That is far too risky for an investment of public money. If the project ended up costing $4 million, that would be $471 for every household in the city. Leesburg's economy probably would get a better jolt if the city just cut a check to residents and sent it to their homes with the monthly electric bill.
Why would a government even consider getting into the business of owning and presumably operating expensive, risky equipment for businesses that can't afford their own? Cities shouldn't be partners in private business. Where does it stop? Should the city pay a subsidy to local machine shops for taking away that business? How does the city justify which businesses to invest in and which to reject?
Eeek! It gets sticky, doesn't it?
And let's remember what happened the last time Leesburg foolishly got involved with private business. The city was so sure that Skybolt Inc., another aviation business, would just explode with growth when it came to town that the city pledged to repay grants from the state if it didn't.
Needless to say, that one was a mistake. Skybolt's failure to meet growth expectations cost Leesburg taxpayers $750,000, roughly $100 for every household. You'd think that Leesburg would have learned its lesson about the riskiness of aviation businesses.
Leesburg has a pot of money from gas-department profits that it has set aside to use for economic development. Already, it has utterly wasted $100,500 on a "consultant" who brought in precisely zero businesses and submitted a report that could have been assembled in one day by a B-average high-school student who knows how to cut and paste from the Internet.
Instead of frittering away millions to attract shaky startups, Leesburg should use its money to craft creative incentive packages for existing companies that already have expressed an interest in the city.
These shouldn't be giveaways. They should be tied to performance and to the level of pay for each job.
Leesburg has some good opportunities on its municipal plate. The city shouldn't get itself tangled up in schemes that won't result in a benefit for the general public.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun