MIAMI - Sports teams aren't the only private corporations receiving tax dollars. Companies like Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and other chains, received at least $620,000 from the state of Florida in 2012.
The company received the money for building five restaurants on contaminated land, including three in Miami-Dade County, as part of the Brownfields Redevelopment Program. It's meant to reward companies that benefit the environment.
Problem: there was no contamination on the land. Its new Olive Garden in Cutler Bay, for which it is receiving $200,000, is in the middle of a mall parking lot surrounded by numerous stores that didn't receive any taxpayers' money at all.
How is this possible? It's all in the definition, says Julian Perez, the community development director in Cutler Bay. "A brownfield is a site that is actually contaminated or perceived to be contaminated," he says.
"The Olive Garden is in the middle of a mall where there are stores and there is no contamination," said Local 10's Bob Norman.
"Correct," answered Perez.
"Why would you call that a brownfield?" asked Norman.
"[It's] contamination or perceived to be contamination," replied Perez.
"What are the areas that are truly contaminated can you give me a couple of examples" asked Norman.
"I can't give you those examples," said Perez.
"You don't have any? You don't know of any real contamination?"
"So it's all perceived?"
"If that's the way you want to look at it, yes," answered Perez.
It's not just Darden's -- the state has given away millions to other large corporations
A spokesman for Darden Restaurants said the company took advantage of state programs and created thousands of jobs in Florida. The company wouldn't need to seem to need taxpayer handouts; it made more than $470 million in profits last year. And Darden's isn't the only one major corporation receiving money for "perceived" brownfield building -- other companies getting similar benefits are Walmart, Coca-Cola, and BJ's Wholesale Club.
State legislators are considering cracking down on Enterprise Florida, the public-private group that gives out much of the $111 million earmarked for economic development for Brownsfields and other incentive programs. Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to raise the economic development budget to $300 million in 2013.
"You have major corporations getting hundreds of thousands [of dollars] to create a few jobs when they probably would have created the jobs anyway," said Florida Rep. Mike Fasano at a recent hearing.
State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) is sponsoring one bill to hold the state more accountable in the way it spends its money. He brings up the notorious case of Digital Domain, which went bankrupt after receiving $20 million from the state.
"We got no return whatsoever," said Rodriguez.
A report by Integrity Florida, a watchdog group, found Enterprise Florida gave out money to board member companies that paid it $50,000, including Darden Restaurants.
"There's a perception that there's a lot of pay to play," added Rodriguez. "We need a better sense of what is going on with our tax dollars here in the state of Florida."
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