Health Check, one of the county’s largest private employers, announced last week that it will be doubling its size with an expansion that will take it to Mississippi.
President and CEO Carole Kelly said the company would maintain its location in Overstreet, where the company employs 50 full-time workers.
That location in time, Kelly said, will cease to be company headquarters and become a satellite location for the company, which performs audits for hospitals to ensure they are receiving proper reimbursement from insurance companies.
But after months of considering expanding the company’s operations locally, Kelly said she made a business decision to expand to Oxford, MS, where she said the talent pool was more robust and the reception for the company’s arrival more embracing than what it has been her experience in Gulf County.
“You’ve heard of the Forgotten Coast, well we are the forgotten company,” Kelly said to a group that included county, Port St. Joe, Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Alliance officials. “We are the highest technology company you can get. We are sitting in your backyard.”
However, she said the company feels almost an afterthought to local elected officials.
Further she said infrastructure problems and workforce issues forced the company to look elsewhere.
“The excitement there and the way we have been treated has been so different than here,” Kelly said of Oxford. “They are treating us as a win-win for a technology company coming in. They are offering incentives for the space we are using and build out for that space.
“(Here) if we had people stopping by and asking how things were going, that would have made a a difference. If there was some acknowledgement of what we have done here. No one even acknowledges we are around.”
A strong community presence
Health Check has been in Gulf County 16 years and over that time has put $30 million in payroll into the community, Kelly said.
Translating each payroll dollar into $3 into the community, Kelly said her company has put $150 million into the local economy over 16 years.
Kelly noted that the company has also sought ways to contribute to the community, from being part of Ghosts on the Coast despite not having a presence on Reid Avenue to sponsoring a suite at Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf.
“It goes on and on what we spend in the community,” Kelly said. “We are constantly seeking ways to contribute to the community ... Think about those companies who really care about this area, who contribute to this area.
“We have come here and built a company that is clean and pays good wages and benefits. We get nothing from the community. You have some very fine people here who want to work. You need to start embracing the companies that are here.”
In addition, the company has taken a workforce that was largely untrained, many without high school diplomas, and trained workers and provided high wages and good benefits, including health insurance.
“We work for some of the largest hospital corporations in the country right here from Gulf County,” said Health Check vice president Susan Thiell. “We have outstanding employees and they care about this community.”
Apathy toward ‘Blow-ins’
And the return on the company’s investment, however, has been apathy, both indicated.
The company did not even receive an invitation to a recent business roundtable sponsored by Gulf Coast State College.
The company waited on incentives and outreach from the county which has never materialized, Kelly said.
Kelly mentioned the derogatory description of “blow-ins” by county commissioners and noted she is a blow-in as a native of California.
She added that the community will only grow by embracing those wishing to move to Gulf County from elsewhere.
“I am one of your major blow-ins,” Kelly said, adding the folks in Mississippi didn’t perceive her as a blow-in. “You need to embrace your blow-ins.”
A boon for women
She added that Health Check has been a boon for women in the community as at roughly 95 percent of the company’s workforce was women, providing something other than shipping, crabbing and timber for employment, largely male bastions.
“I decided I should hire a lot of women,” Kelly said. “We took them and trained them and they have a wonderful career. They were able to improve their lives in the community.”
She said infrastructure improvements were needed to float all boats in the economy. Kelly said phone company cables were frequently being cut causing the loss of thousands of dollars.
A new phone company to provide competition and penalties from local officials for those times when a company’s actions negatively impact another company should be in place.
“They (the phone company) are the only game in town so there is no reason to feel pressure because we are down and losing money,” Kelly said.
Thiell and Kelly noted the steady loss of students from the public schools and the lack of jobs for those who do graduate from the county schools as serious issues.
“There is so much talent and so much good here. And it is going away,” Thiell said.
New cell towers to improve reception would also be a plus.
Setting it straight
Kelly said she wanted the meeting with local officials to announce her plans and her issues with the local climate, “To help other companies that come behind us or who are here, in order to help them.”
She also said the community has too many natural attributes – the sunny days, waters and beaches – to continue to struggle economically.
“This doesn’t stop me from loving this community … but it has been a long wait (for recognition and an embrace from local elected officials) and it shouldn’t be,” she said.
County Commissioner Joanna Bryan said she was disappointed the company’s expansion plans did not include Gulf County and she could relate to issues raised by Kelly.
“I have been here eight years and experienced many of the same things,” Bryan said, noting much of her law business is out of Bay County. “I have been trying to work through the (County Commission) to change the ways we look at things … and have mostly run into a brick wall.
“This news is very disheartening to me. I hope we can see some positive changes in the future.”
EDA executive director Barry Sellers, who Kelly praised for his efforts to make expansion of Health Check in Gulf County a reality, said, “I appreciate the chance to retain the jobs we have. We have been meeting and we have been trying. It just hasn’t worked.”
Thiell mentioned that Enterprise Florida has also been a good resource for the company.
But for a company considering doubling the size of its workforce in Gulf County, local officials have been lukewarm at best, Kelly referenced.
“They want me, they don’t want me, they want me, they don’t want me,” Kelly said of the signals from local elected officials. “How long does that go on? I don’t know why they don’t like me and don’t like my company.”
When asked whether pending litigation between Health Check and county attorney Jeremy Novak centered on his representation of a former employee had any bearing on her decision, Kelly said she could not comment due to a gag order put in place by the judge hearing the case.