Back to the future.
A narrowly divided Board of County Commissioners agreed to move the Economic Development Council out from under the board’s umbrella and to tweak the operational model for at least the next two years.
Commissioners also agreed to restore pledged funding from the county of $80,000 per year and to leave EDC executive director Barry Sellers as an employee separate from the BOCC and Chamber of Commerce, reporting to a five-member board that will be selected by the Chamber.
Commissioners Joanna Bryan, Ward McDaniel and Tan Smiley approved the move; Commissioners Warren Yeager and Carmen McLemore dissented.
The BOCC had late last year voted to move the EDC under the umbrella of the BOCC. That was less than two years into a five-year plan that consolidated the Chamber and EDC and also brought in Sellers after a nationwide search for an EDC director.
At the time, the board appointed county administrator Don Butler as the point of contact for economic development.
Chamber president Guerry Magidson urged commissioners to reconsider that decision and asked that the board restore the EDC as an agency outside of the BOCC and Chamber, restore funding at $80,000 a year from the county.
He added that a new five-member board comprised of business people in the community would be selected to oversee EDC activities and said several folks from the community had agreed to sit on that board.
There was some discussion regarding the pledges made between the BOCC and consolidated Chamber/EDC, but county attorney Jeremy Novak noted that nothing had been put down in writing, though Smiley acknowledged a “gentlemen’s agreement” concerning the time span and dollar amount.
The consolidated model was created in 2011 after commissioners ceased a five-year plan with the previously-constructed EDC barely two years into the pledge. The BOCC has altered the EDC operational model five times in the past 13 years.
“I have watched this (consolidation) process go on … and it clearly did not work,” Bryan said. “When the board decided to consolidate the agencies, they provided no clear direction. The Chamber spent money and identified a talented individual in Barry Sellers.
“You have taken his right wrist and tied it to his left ankle and told him to do his job. I do not believe government should be in economic development.”
Magidson said the upheaval at the EDC has made both potential private partners and companies looking to relocate to Gulf County “leery because of the way business is done in Gulf County and we have to change that.”
Yeager said economic development was difficult throughout the state and argued that the government must have a place in the equation, if for no other reason than taxpayer money was being used to fund the effort.
Bryan agreed that government has a role, but mistakes had been made by the BOCC and government should leave to the business experts the role of economic development.
Yeager, who led the push for a consolidated model while commission chair, said he favored keeping the EDC under the county umbrella and noted that there “really wasn’t an EDC right now.”
“We have all struggled with figuring out how to bring jobs to Gulf County,” Yeager said.
McLemore said his commitment would be for six months and no more and if results were not forthcoming, corrective action was needed.
Quen Lamb, a business analyst from Port St. Joe, said that economic development takes time and Sellers needed the full support of the board and community to make it happen. Lamb said he has worked with Sellers on several projects in recent months and said Sellers is the man for the job.
“If our goal here in Gulf County is jobs, you need to give Barry another shot and more time,” Lamb said.
Smiley said he was basing his decision on those in the county without jobs, who are desperate to see economic development.
“We need to make this commitment now,” Bryan said. “We have wasted too much time.”
Magidson added, “In Gulf County we need jobs, we need businesses. We need to work together and quit fighting.”
The BOCC, with Bryan dissenting, agreed to move ahead with hiring two employees.
One would serve as a consultant to Butler during discussions with a company considering locating in Gulf County. Butler said for unexpressed reasons the company had not contacted the Port Authority or Sellers – the project would involve land along the Intracoastal Canal and dredging of the canal – and he wanted a consultant to help him determine the bona fides of the company.
Bryan said Sellers could be an asset in those discussions and was fully qualified to serve as that consultant.
She said this was another example of the BOCC’s inconsistency on economic development.
“We show we have no continuity,” Bryan said. “We move in different directions on economic development. Private partners are afraid to invest in economic development.
“We need to make use of the assets we have available. We don’t need to move in different directions.”
She also opposed the decision because Butler offered no specifics on how the consultant would be paid or for how long.
The other position was one discussed by the board previously, an employee to essentially work across all departments, particularly as several key employees reach retirement in the next two to five years.
Bryan said the county had more pressing issues – a landfill that without expansion could be in danger of closing in five years and economic development – and suggested now was not the time to “expand” government.
“We need to make due with what we have,” Bryan said, adding that no salary was attached to the job specifications. “In better times we could use this position.
“I have to wonder what the plan is. We have a lot of issues that are pressing.
Yeager said the new position was designed to make county government more efficient and argued the position will pay for itself in a few years.
“I’m for reducing government in people’s lives, but I see this as reducing costs,” Yeager said.
Both positions were approved 4-1, Bryan dissenting.