Even by the limbo standards of the Board of County Commissioners the most recent regular meeting was contortionism at its finest.
Within two hours, commissioners dismantled a consolidated Economic Development Council/Chamber of Commerce model they constructed 18 months ago, to considerable controversy, and sought to hire an outgoing commissioner to lobby for the county..
The message being sent is unknown, but there is a wish that commissioners had spent the following day attending a meeting of the Port Authority and the presentation from an economic development expert with credentials most could only dream of.
Jeff Holt, Managing Director for Infrastructure Banking with the Bank of Montreal might have provided the most clear-eyed and optimistic discussion about the potential at the Port of Port St. Joe that has been heard since the effort to re-engage the port began more than a decade ago.
For 35 years he has been an investment banker, worked on deals billions of dollars larger than anything likely coming to Gulf County and worked on economic development around the globe.
Holt said the development of the port would not happen overnight, but he had learned about patience, about staying the course.
He noted the importance of the St. Joe Company as a private sector partner and how that name provided import to any meeting, any inquiry.
Calling the Port of Port St. Joe a “gateway” to the region that would never go away, he laid out the pros and the cons of what his team was attempting at the behest of the St. Joe, and by proxy the Port Authority.
In short, he underscored everything that the county, particularly the BOCC, has done wrong on the economic development side.
In the days following the BOCC decision to wreck its own model for bringing jobs to the county, the board of the Chamber of Commerce also met and could also find no consensus.
One board member believed that all that had been accomplished by the consolidation effort was a year of confusion.
He could have made it a decade.
That is what the BOCC has done as commissioners with varying agendas have assembled and disassembled the EDC as if playing with Legos.
The consistent removal and hiring of EDC directors, at least five since 2000, and the differing directions that have been supplied have set this county back a decade, easily, in the world of economic development.
Consider two recent deals Holt’s team led.
One was a deal with the State of Delaware to sell or lease the Port of Wilmington. That was near completion more than two years after being initiated.
Another was running a rail line through Los Angeles to the Port of Los Angeles, a $2 billion endeavor. That took six years.
Consider also the most prominent effort by the previous formation of the EDC, which actually included an active public/private partnership.
The former director was working on a series of deals to create something of a renewable energy research and operational center of Gulf County.
A woody biomass plant was the centerpiece, and never came to fruition when financing became an issue, but the other centerpiece was a grow operation for newly-engineered fast-growing plants.
That project, at one time, had the support of the St. Joe Company and Florida’s Great Northwest, a quasi-public economic development organization, but after the director was shown his walking papers that project disappeared.
The grass is now formally approved for growing and use and that project is now ramping up elsewhere.
And in blowing up that particular organizational model for the EDC, those private partners lost $50,000-$60,000 of their money to the county.
As was brought up at the Chamber meeting, what private partner would want to invest in the BOCC, which cannot stick to a pledge it seems, based on the last two organizational models, more than two years.
But that is also a mindset at the Chamber where one board member said the consolidated model just wasn’t working – after giving it all of a year.
That is the difference between the approach Holt put before the Port Authority and what the BOCC has offered over the past 12 years.
Economic development is not an instant gratification kind of animal, Holt plainly expressed.
Nothing – nothing – happens overnight.
And most of it originates in the private sector and only after the private sector has done its work does government begin to play a role, in permitting, incentives and the like.
Yes, there is a stewardship of the tax dollar aspect to county commissioners’ argument, and if genuine a valid one.
But it is commissioners who have squandered tax dollars for more than a decade while they search in vain for an Economic Development model that provides those all but impossible instant results, and they have done so while alienating potential private partners.
And even though commissioners rarely care, how this plays in Tallahassee is another story for another day.
But underlying Holt’s discussion with the Port Authority was this fundamental – economic development is something you work hard at and hope that hard work pays off.
Economic development is not something that can be, or should be, controlled.
That is something commissioners have long needed to hear.