Some clarification please, Gulf County Board of Commissioners.
That was the message from the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce board of directors last week as they wrestled with the impacts of a BOCC decision of two days prior to bring the Economic Development Council back under the umbrella of the Commission.
At their regular bi-monthly meeting last Tuesday, the BOCC, citing a lack of tangible progress over the past 18 months since commissioners created a consolidated Chamber/EDC model, voted unanimously to bring the EDC function back under BOCC control.
Commissioners made no changes in funding or personnel with the EDC, but said the point of contact for economic development would be county administrator Don Butler
“It’s not clear what that means,” said Chamber president Guerry Magidson.
Magidson said that correspondence in the intervening days had shown that state economic development officials were “disgruntled” and “unhappy” with the BOCC decision.
This was the second time in the past two years and the fifth time since 2000 that the BOCC changed the operational model for the EDC.
“If they take it away we will be out of that business,” Magidson said.
Board member Steve Newman suggested that the Chamber board seek a sit down with commissioners, bringing the City of Port St. Joe into the mix since the city also provides funding to the agency, for an understanding of commissioners’ concerns.
County attorney Jeremy Novak said after his discussions with county commissioners he came away with the feeling that a meeting of some kind was needed to work through issues. He said the city should be part of the discussion.
County Commissioner Warren Yeager, who as board chair championed the consolidation of Chamber and EDC and who missed last week’s BOCC meeting for medical reasons, said last week at a meeting of the Port Authority that he wished his fellow commissioners had waited on any EDC decision.
With the board facing some changes, he noted, that was a discussion probably best left to the new BOCC.
There also seemed to be less than a full consensus on the Chamber board as to the future.
Board member Johanna White said the Chamber needed to continue moving forward but wondered if the board was doing “justice” to the Chamber/EDC director, Barry Sellers. She said she did not believe the consolidated model was being successful.
“We worked hard on this for 18 months and it just isn’t working,” White said.
Dewey Blaylock also wondered whether the Chamber/EDC model could work, as currently constructed, on the economic development side.
“We’ve put another year behind us of confusion about the direction of the EDC,” Blaylock said.
Magidson said he believed the Chamber/EDC model was working and making progress. He noted that the consolidation effort had come during the worst economy since the Great Depression, that businesses were having issues finding funding in the private sector, but that progress had been made.
He and Sellers, along with board member Sharon Gaskin who praised the effort, said they had made significant progress in bringing businesses in the north end of the county and Wewahitchka into the Chamber fold and Seller said he was currently working with six various projects.
An EDC committee had been created, Magidson said.
While acknowledging that the Chamber maybe could have been more forthright with reports and communication of progress with the BOCC, Magidson also noted that many potential projects and leads carry with them proprietary and confidential information until fruition.
“We can show actual results given more time,” Magidson said. “Economic development does not happen in 12 months. We do have several projects for which we are on the short list.”
Magidson said that consistency of message and direction from the BOCC was important. He said there had been constants over the past decade with the EDC – the lack of a consistent approach and the BOCC reducing the amount of funding originally pledged.
“Some longer-term vision on how this handled is needed,” said board member Aaron Farnsley.
Magidson said the timing of the BOCC decision could not have been worse given that the Chamber/EDC had a stakeholder’s meeting, at which a campaign for private sector support would be initiated, scheduled for last Thursday.
That meeting was canceled in the wake of the BOCC decision and at least two potential private partners have notified elected officials and the Chamber that they are no longer interested.
“I would like to think the county is interested in private partners,” Magidson said.
Board member Dave Ashbrook noted that when the BOCC went the consolidation route two years ago, nearly $60,000 in funding from private partners was lost by those investors. He said there should not be any surprise about the lack of confidence from the private sector.
“It is a hard pill for me to swallow that we put in one-and-a-half years of work and we are just about to see results” and the BOCC changes the game, Ashbrook said.
“We (as a Chamber) need to come to a consensus to bring to the table (for discussions with the BOCC) and we don’t have that yet.”
Magidson said it was his hope that after discussions with the BOCC and city, the Chamber/EDC could continue as constructed for at least one more year, with the funding that was pledged. He said the Chamber would be more aggressive and consistent about providing updates to the BOCC.
“I think this is working,” Magidson said. “They should give us full funding and give us one more year.”