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Economic Development Set Punts Again to More Meetings, Postponing Hard Questions

| March 18, 2011

Strategic positioning: Garry Lubi of Prosperity Bank at today's summit meeting. (© FlaglerLive)

Strategic positioning: Garry Lubi of Prosperity Bank at today's summit meeting. (© FlaglerLive)

If there was economic development in talk, Flagler County would rival growth in some of China’s smaller provinces by now. This kind of talk cost county taxpayers $22,000 only to yield a consensus for more talk—for another $7,000 a day (not including expenses).

On January 31, almost every politician in the county, along with business representatives, met to figure out how to move Flagler County forward economically. The goal: lower the 16 percent unemployment rate. They couldn’t agree. Cities and the county had different agendas, different constituencies, different ideas. After 137 minutes, they decided to hire a “facilitator.” He’d help figure out a plan at a subsequent meeting, how to pay for it, and who would lead it.

The group of 60-some people has since met for 20 hours over three separate days in March—the latest of those today, starting at 8 a.m. They had little trouble hashing out a general, five-point “strategic plan” that sums up with plenty of bullet points all sorts of aspirations and optimistic ideas, though without associated costs. They did that on the first day, and have been expanding on it since.

“Since we have a consensus of things we all would like to see happen in the county, I’d like to see if we can come up with a method of funding that everyone will agree to,” Alan Peterson, chairman of the county commission, said on the eve of the meeting.

It didn’t happen. They still don’t know who will pay for any of it or how. They still don’t know who will lead it, if anyone.

They know one thing: they’ll hold more meetings. Every quarter. The next one: May 13. They’ll pay Don Upton, the same moderator—from Tampa-based Fairfield Index Inc.—another $7,000 to lead that one, too, because they don’t feel they have the wherewithal to do it themselves.

That lack of self-confidence is indicative of the county’s fault lines: Handing the job to a politician –a county commissioner or a city commissioner—would imply a leadership role that has yet to be agreed upon. Handing it to a business owner or representative would shift the balance of authority disproportionately toward one interest group over others. The fault line demarcates how far apart the group’s “family” members (as that facilitator refers to them) still are, lavish talk about collegiality aside.

Friendly reminder: Palm Coast Mayor Jon netts, left, facilitates Don Upton's understanding. (© FlaglerLive)

An indication of Friday’s sprawling, unfocused session, and Upton’s frailer control of it for chunks of the day, was its latter hours, when Upton hurried through issues of funding and governance—the issues presumed to have been at the heart of today’s session—only to shunt them aside and come up with what he termed a more crucial set of “action items” right now: future meeting schedules that will fill more details on those “strategic” goals. At one point School Board member Colleen Conklin was reduced to quoting the Dalai Lama from a phone utility in hopes of inspiring the assembly to more cogent achievements.

It was just before 1 p.m. that Upton delivered his news flash to the assembly: The objective of the summit, he told them, “was never how much and who’s in charge.” In a lunchtime interview two weeks earlier, on the second day of the summit—when participants were also wondering when those matters would be raised—Upton said those objective very much were on the agenda, but would be tackled later that day. They never were, though the third session starring Don Upton—today’s—turned from “if necessary” to a scheduled certainty.

“Unless we talk about who’s going to do what and how and when,” County Commissioner Milissa Holland said at one point, referring to governance, only to be interrupted by Upton, who said he didn’t  see governance as “all that meaningful, but I don’t want to be disrespectful.” At that point he more heavy-handedly seized control of the meeting to redirect it on “action items” he could control—namely, meeting dates and subcommittee heads—as opposed to questions he did not want to answer.

Which left Friday’s substance to a re-statement of the previous meeting’s goals. None of those goals and aspirations is controversial. Each represents the sort of goal few people would dispute: link and leverage local talent with educational opportunities and workforce oriented services; partner with regional and state economic development agencies (public, private or both), identify transportation assets such as rail and ports (think Jacksonville) and find ways to take advantage of them. But ideas and plans are not in short supply. Develop a marketing campaign, target specific industries that should be enticed to move to Flagler, go to trade shows, join regional organizations, and so on. The more local focus on “customer service”  commanded plenty of attention as the business groups in the room pressed it against increasingly impatient politicians, whose perception of customer service in their cities and counties isn’t as jaundiced.

Before the May 13 meeting, five subcommittees will hold an indeterminate number of meetings to put details and dollar figures to each of the “strategic goals” agreed upon. The May 13 meeting should provide a clear picture of the plan’s cost. Today’s meeting should have provided that picture too. It’s possible the May 13 meeting will leave a bottom line unclear.

Landon speaks. (© FlaglerLive)

What is becoming clearer, in spite of the group’s obfuscations, is this: as Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts and County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson agreed in a post-summit conversation this afternoon, none of the goals is particularly costly, though all of them together might add up to several hundred thousand dollars. What that suggests is that while the desire for more taxes may not be there—and isn’t, from Palm Coast’s and Flagler Beach’s perspective—it may be possible to do what Palm Coast does with its existing, $330,000 economic development budget: focus on certain areas and reallocate existing dollars rather than go after new ones.

John Walsh, publisher of the Palm Coast Observer and a participant in the meeting, pointedly asked Jim Landon, the Palm Coast city manager, to describe the city’s version of economic development (a plan it calls Prosperity 2021). Similar but “broader” goals than those drawn up by the summit participants, Landon said, with more focus on eco tourism (witness the city’s development of trails and parks), and revitalization of older neighborhoods, which would keep property values from falling, for example. (The “broader” part is not quite accurate when compared to the summit’s ambitions.) The city council made clear, Landon said, that “funding needs to stay within our existing means, and to shift funding within economic development as opposed to creating new funding for economic development has been our economic development strategy.”

Without having to say so, the city most people in the room would refer to as the elephant in the room set the tone for the kind of permissible economic development that will take place: lower cost, more targeted benefit. And when it comes to customer service, Palm Coast doesn’t think it has a problem beyond the fact that any service can always be improved.

The two “summit” meetings earlier this month drew more than 60 participants each. Today’s meeting drew just under 50, according to a headcount around noon. None of the meetings drew a public audience of more than five or six. It was, beyond the walls of the extension service assembly hall, a beautiful day, and participants took advantage of it by escaping outside in steady clusters, with cell phones for hall passes.

says he doesn\’t know who added the monicker to his nameplate.
(© FlaglerLive)”]
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11 Responses for “Economic Development Set Punts Again to More Meetings, Postponing Hard Questions”

  1. Jack says:

    spelled Kahuna

  2. Alex says:

    What are the qualifications of our city and county official in economic developments?

    What kind of previous experience they had?

    Did they succeed or failed?

    If they succeed and create jobs, are they ready to receive all the unemployed from the rest of Florida and the nation?

  3. Liana G says:

    “They still don’t know who will lead it, if anyone.”

    “That lack of self-confidence is indicative of the county’s fault lines”

    “This kind of talk cost county taxpayers $22,000 only to yield a consensus for more talk—for another $7,000 a day (not including expenses).”

    “They know one thing: they’ll hold more meetings. Every quarter. The next one: May 13. They’ll pay Don Upton, the same moderator—from Tampa-based Fairfield Index Inc.—another $7,000 to lead that one, too, because they don’t feel they have the wherewithal to do it themselves.”

    Fiscal conservatives and their good governance at work . . . .

  4. Jim Guines says:

    Must have been a fairly nonproductive meeting as it did not even produce comments much on Flaglerlive’s comment section!

  5. Cha-Ching says:

    How much was spent on this event? Was a “facilitator” a friend who needed his pockets filled? How much was this “facilitator” paid?

  6. palmcoaster says:

    Jim, this meeting is a waste of our tax payers hard earned dollars. Like myself many may just be so pissed off, that we just get tired of ranting against this frivolous spending for the sake of who will end up getting paid even more that Upton, to bring more blunders to this county. Of course “Coffey the big Kahuna” as the brain storm of bringing Upton for $1,200/hour or so pay on our pockets, not his! And the beat goes on, also with the waste on the Coquina desalt plant consultant at another high rate of pay for over a year of meetings so far. How could they ever come up with the right ideas about creating jobs when they do not allow the local business community speak on the debate. I see there Gary Lubi from “Prosperity Bank” how many more jobs that bank can contribute? Probably none, but he is one of the VIP’s speakers. Tell me whom you hang out and I will tell you who you are.The community was not present in the meetings because the cliche’s and the clicks are the name of the game and that is the very reason why the job stagnation in the county remains at over 16% unemployment.

    Is the same situation all over our nation right now the have’s, do “the important me talk”, to resolve what they are not really willing or capable too, while the have’s not, resolve not to show up and waste their valuable time to hear the self and their cronies proclaim VIP’s, BS. I could see now, that will not be any positive outcome from this dilapidation of our taxes and no jobs created afterwards. Sincerely I wish I was wrong. What were these commissioners thinking when they called this charade?

  7. nan says:

    Comment to PalmCoaster, it wasn’t Craig Coffey’s idea to hire a facilitator, I believe that Commissioner Revels was the one who put forth the idea at the January 31st meeting.

    I was one of the people at the three meetings There are many interesting ideas and discussions’ however, I am not confident that it will have successful results. One preliminary need is to have realistic goals. I don’t see us as having the large corporations coming here. The most interesting and knowlegeable people at the summit were the SCORE members. These men knew what they were talking about. I am surprised that they weren’t interviewed by Pierre.

    One thing I will say in support of the summit, after sitting through the meetings, is that projects of this magnitude are not easy to put together. It is easy to look in from the outside and say what should or should not be done, but unless one is actually involved in the project they cannot see how involved it can be. I know I didn’t appreciate all that goes into projects like this I hope that there will be accomplishments made and the money being spent will turn out to be well spent. As I said beore, I am not optimistic that this will be the outcome.

  8. palmcoaster says:

    Nan you got it right when you mentioned SCORE, those are the retired volunteers that should have been hired/engage for much less or very little if any pay. They are the retired professional volunteers that would have realistically help in this issue. I wrote about our professional retirees to be invited to help, way before they engaged Upton at his outrageous rate, but my suggestion when to the waste basket. This is why most of us we did not bother to be present in these meetings, we know already Who is Who in this county, no reason to waste our time to go listen their expensive “loosey goosey” or watch them on stage.Too bad for Barbara Revels if was her idea. At least School Board Member Conklin have set a good example she hired a local lawyer to help her injury case against the city of Flagler Beach. She didn’t outsource legal services this time like the school did regarding their attorney outsourced out of the county and I know she was in that board too.

    Example; how many attorneys our local government hire out of the county? Sure in just this example they prevent local legal secretaries and other office workers hiring and any other service this professionals utilize, as well as local office space leased. Like this example hundreds more. What happened, our local attorneys are not good enough? Can anyone see the writting in the wall? The same VIP’s in that meeting are the ones that undermind our own local professional and laboral force. Sure no way to create jobs!

  9. palmcoaster says:

    One more proof of my statements above is the fact that John Walsh “Chamber buddie” questioned City Manager Landon? Give me a break!.. besides being a Chamber buddy and his publication “Filter Master” who is this Walsh fellow, other than the editor of a paper still in diapers and with fainted chances of success against the open to all Internet sites like “Flagler Live” were our comments are not censored like in his once a week print. What this paper owner can contribute other than, the “maybe five employees” that probably he has now? Probably himself a recent arrived in town, seriously endorsed by Chamber (as usual with recenty arrivals) and the good old boys. Landon represents the eight hundred pound gorilla of this county and he better do not mess up with him/us as we, as Flagler Beach do not want/need additional taxes to fund further flops as Landon is aware of.
    He should be appreciated that city (without tax payers approval of course) funded by insertion of its logo the advertising/print of the Parade of Homes insert in his paper. Something that we residents do not justify, as only sponsors the builders, realtors etc. in that field of business. Our taxes utilized in sponsoring a sector of private businesses only and worst of all, a sector that is at a stand still now, construction. Some of these builders are wealthy and should fund their own enterprises. No tax payers fund my private enterprise! Here the clicks and cliches at work again this time the Flagler County Home Builders Assoc. Looks like the county passed the funding this time as had to pay Upton.

  10. palmcoaster says:

    Nan, also we should all thank you for going to the three meetings.
    Some officials thought to be a wasted time for them so far. As per the outcome I couldn’t agree more.
    SCORE should have been called to be the facilitator, the local “small businesses should have been invited” and the outcome would have been a positive one and at no cost to the tax payers.

  11. Bob Alex - Palm Coast says:

    I have been following, and attended some of the Economic Summit exercises, as well as, the workshop
    meetings with the cities. The monies spent to facilitate the Summit meetings may have been substantially better spent if a true comprehensive plan was in place. Instead it turned out to be a cheerleading program where “most” of the participants were not knowledgeable in the Economic Development process. Many of the County and City leaders sit on their plans because they don’t have a clue as to what steps they must take to turn this information into results. My opinion, (and experience in the Economic Development process), indicates that a tested, seasoned, full time professional Executive Director of Economic Development be put in place, and a citizen commission formed, who do not have personal, or professional agendas, nor, are beholding to the pressures of elected officials. If our citizens are not part of this process, it is surely doomed for failure.

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