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Public Money, Public Purpose, Closed Doors: Enterprise Flagler and Chamber Carry On

| August 4, 2011

flagler county chamber of commerce enterprise flagler

They like it like that. (© Eduardo García)

Last week County Administrator Craig Coffey presented a new economic development plan to the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce board. The plan doesn’t have the county commission’s endorsement, though it has the support of some commissioners. Nor has it been presented to the commission in an open meeting. Coffey briefed each commissioner separately, then took the plan to the chamber, though almost the entirety of the plan rests on at least $400,000 in tax dollars.

It’s not clear at what point the public will be involved in the discussion. Previous economic development initiatives wrecked as a result, in part, of their lack of transparency and contempt for public input, even as the same initiatives presumed to favor the public interest. The contradiction remains unresolved as government or private sector officials involved in those initiatives continue to defend the secrecy, always promising transparency at a later date.

The chamber leadership was receptive about any plan that would move economic development forward, but was non-committal about the Coffey plan’s particulars: it wanted to explore it further, and examine its implications with Enterprise Flagler, the public-private economic development partnership (many of whose members are also chamber members).

The Coffey plan would be modeled after the Tourist Development Council, with a nine-member board representing all major local governments (except, curiously, the school board, the single-most potent economic development force in the county and its largest employer by far) and selected sectors of private industry. It would place Chamber President Doug Baxter in an executive role over the staff of the proposed economic development council (EDC), and eliminate Enterprise Flagler. Public funding now supporting Enterprise Flagler would be redirected to the new council. Local governments are not keen on subsidizing both entities. Palm Coast is on the verge of abandoning its $90,000-a-year commitment to Enterprise Flagler, and appears uninterested in paying to be part of Coffey’s EDC idea.

None of those discussions have happened in the open. No open discussions are scheduled: county-wide economic development “summits” have been canceled twice, and not yet rescheduled. Closed-door discussions continue, though the discussions involve almost exclusively public dollars and a public purpose.

Enterprise Flagler had floated its own plan in June in a secret meeting of its own. That plan, crafted by Enterprise Flagler President David Ottati, would cut the Enterprise Flagler board in half and increase its funding. Bunnell and Flagler Beach officials were angered: the plan appeared to sideline the two cities’ voices. The plan was quickly amended to assuage the two cities: they’re back at the table, and that issue has been resolved. Enterprise Flagler has also opened all its meetings since, and was willing to hold an open meeting today, Ottati said, but he was not in control of the chamber meeting.

The Coffey plan introduced a new wrinkle in the equation—and for Enterprise Flagler, nothing short of an existential dilemma. The two plans appear mutually exclusive.

Meeting on Wednesday, the Enterprise Flagler board was, unsurprisingly, mostly cool to the Coffey plan. Enterprise Flagler wants to stick around, and wants its plan heard. Board members were particularly uninterested in an economic development structure that would place the chamber in an executive role. Baxter clarified: the structure would be similar to the tourist council and its contractual relationship with the chamber, through whose offices Peggy Heiser, a chamber vice president, leads tourism issues on behalf of the government-funded tourist council. “It’s not as if I’m standing over her every day telling her what to do because she’s very good at what she does,” Baxter said of Heiser.

Lea Stokes, who chairs the Flagler chamber, last week had scheduled a 4 p.m. meeting today between the two boards—Enterprise Flagler and the chamber—to discuss the Coffey plan. The meeting, she told the Palm Coast Observer and FlaglerLive, was closed to media. By late morning today, Stokes said the nature of the meeting had changed: it would not be a meeting of both boards, but a presentation by representatives of Enterprise Flagler, including David Ottati, to the chamber board. Stokes said she had changed the nature of the meeting after a conversation with Ottati this morning.

“Based on that conversation there doesn’t appear to be a need for a joint workshop meeting between the two entities,” Stokes said. She said she’d know more after today’s 4 p.m. meeting.

There is no sunshine issue involved here: the chamber is a private organization, it may hold closed meetings just as it may hold open meetings. The Enterprise Flagler board’s make-up, however, includes elected officials and representatives from every local government, and is almost entirely funded with public dollars, making it subject to the sunshine law, with some exceptions (as when board discussions involve private companies prospecting in the area, and requiring confidentiality.) A meeting of the joint boards would have compelled openness, although even in the meeting’s original format, the chamber, whose members, being from the private sector, have an instinctive predisposition against openness, was intending to close it. By crafting the meeting as a special meeting of the chamber where members of Enterprise Flagler happen to be invited to make a presentation, the chamber is maneuvering around the constraint.

The meeting, however, is focused on the county’s economic development plans, public money and public purpose, raising questions about the motive behind its closure whether the strict letter of the sunshine law is applied or not. “If this is how they’re going to treat us now, how are they going to treat us when they have power?” John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer publisher, said. Walsh has himself floated an economic development plan similar to the one Coffey presented in almost all regards, with a key exception: the chamber would not have an executive role over the economic development council.

County commissioner Barbara Revels, Flagler Beach Commissioner Jane Mealy and Bunnell representative Mick Cuthbertson, all of whom intend to be at that meeting, said they were not aware of the closure.

Ottati, who is also the Florida Hospital Flagler CEO, was in Jacksonville for part of the day today, receiving a CEO of the Year award from the Jacksonville Business Journal.

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16 Responses for “Public Money, Public Purpose, Closed Doors: Enterprise Flagler and Chamber Carry On”

  1. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Flim Flam Artists at Work. Only the names will be changed to protect the usual suspects from scrutiny.

    Just move along and send your hard-earned money to Mr. Coffey. He apparently is under the impression that he runs things and why shouldn’t he, the county commission doesn’t seem to be able to wrap their minds around the fact that they are the STEWARDS of our money, not drunken sailors on shore leave. Ditto elected officials of all Flagler county entities.

    BTW – I’m so glad Mealy will have a seat at the table. The poor old girl was sooooooo upset when she wasn’t allowed at a previous meeting.

    I don’t care what the Chamber of Commerce does, but if any public money passes hands, we need to know pronto.

  2. Ky says:

    …interesting update, thanks. My friend Dr. Harriet Lewis has a very insightful article on how a county like Flagler should approach Economic Development when it comes to aspects like transparency, resident involvement and input, and overall approach. You can read it here:

  3. Richard Hamilton says:

    I have no idea why these people at Enterprise Flagler seem so bent over on secrecy. They only thing i can think they need to keep hidden is their inefficiency, and that seems to be public knowledge anyway.

    The only argument for secrecy is that they want to respect the confidentiality of possible companies moving to the area while they negotiate. I have always felt that was a losing proposition for the County and will explain why.

    In my corporate career i was responsible for making or guiding many decisions about where to open, close or expand businesses. Tax and other incentives were always amongst the last things to be negotiated in the decision, often after we had actually decided what we wanted to do for other more concrete business reasons (such as availability of educated and affordable labor, good transportation and infrastructure, access to suppliers and materials, a good environment to attract key professional staff to relocate and so on). Almost half the time the decision was already made by the unit head on where he wanted to relocate his family. Only then would we try to play off the chosen location to get better incentives by pretending we had not made a decision. It was a stacked game of poker because we knew the outcome. We could always fold but never lose.

    So my suggestion is that the County and/or the City should sit down and develop a consistent set of incentives that are public and will apply to any business that wants to relocate to or expand in the County. No negotiation to keep hidden. Just a set of rules that companies know must be met to get the benefits. The only thing that “Enterprise Flagler” or whoever does that job needs to do is to develop a good brochure that lays out the reasons that businesses should move to Flagler County, and get it in the hands of the relatively few relocation consultants that companies use to make these decisions. And we must have enough talent in County to do that for a very reasonable price.

  4. palmcoaster says:

    You got it right Mr Richard Hamilton…We don’t need the secrecy of the Chamber or Enterprise like I say let the cities and their small business community on meetings were all are included as well as our retired professionals like yourself can create an effective plan for a successful ED. I would volunteer to help wouldn’t you as well if invited? Lets propose it. We can volunteer all few hours a week on the phones and on line under cities guidelines to contact and attract more non competitive with already existing businesses, new ones.
    These groups of self appointed elite that our elected ones want to further benefit with our taxes for nothing, have not worked so far for tourism neither for ED. Why to continuo pushing for the same? My question now to these commissioners with the latest Coffey costly blunder to be proposed to give the chamber 400,000 of my taxes and further empower Dough Baxter!. Please!

  5. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Palmcoaster, if you do nothing else, please differentiate between public and private. The CoC is a privately funded organization and, as such, can be as secretive as they like. Enterprise Flagler, by soliciting public funds, doesn’t have that luxury, nor do the shenanigans/meetings of public officials or employees.

  6. palmcoaster says:

    LAC I know very well what is private and what is public. I object that the COC holds a secretive meeting (yes they can hold as many as they want as privately funded…but they received TDC public 4% bed tax on the tune of 670,000 plus a year) with Enterprise Flagler officials that receives public funds and right there is a conflict specially when the meeting has to do about how to better land some public funds for ED…
    LAC your would do much better service watching our elected ones activities in the county and cities than negatively monitoring me. We see the same blunders but unfortunately thru different prisms.

  7. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Palmcoaster, I am not monitoring you. We are having, as they say on the internet, a conversation and please don’t think I support the bed tax or the Chamber’s participation in glomming off 3/4’s of mil of it (I”m taking your word that the numbers are correct because I haven’t checked them). Business people have agreed to levy it on their customers and since it’s not public funds, neither of us can take umbrage.

    The problem with public officials is that their names are familiar to voters, so they usually get re-elected unless there’s a public scandal or someone very clever and dynamic opposes them.

    I hope you keep commenting. I enjoy reading them.

  8. palmcoaster says:

    Thank you so much LAC for your encouragement. We have now in Flagler County this excellent communication tool offered by Flagler Live (something that I surely thank them for) where we can learn from each other and different researched facts about what is really going and what government decisions affect our lives.
    I firmly believe that we are always intentionally pitched against each other in our country, so in the midst of our disagreements and brotherly fights some outsiders or well intended inside takers profit from it. I also believe that neither capitalism or socialism are perfect or the appositive, or right out bad on its very basic phylosophy. Greatly distortion and abuses of them by the powers that be, is what makes them both a pathetic failure, like we see now.

  9. palmcoaster says:

    Also maybe if any of us can, we should contribute with whatever we can to help our fellow county residents in financial distress .Thank you all in advance.
    I know if we all get together we can turn our economy around and create jobs first without getting ourselves into deeper debt or recession.
    I have renters that lost both their jobs….and for a while could not pay their monthly’s. I didn’t leave them homeless, I took their word and even help them find one permanent job and some part time here and there to get by. Then they complied their promise and are back paying their rent and the arrears. And I got no stimulus $$$ just my own hard earned savings. Why banks didn’t do same with the stimulus received from us all? They evicted people that after years of paying their mortgages loss their jobs and could not temporarily pay it. What was good to do that and now to bulldoze their houses. Why these banks were not forced to do what I did with my renters? Give our fellow Americans our helping hand and the one step missing on their ladder, not to fall to the bottom?When are we going to exercise some compassion among ourselves other than direct it all outside our borders?
    Thank you Flagler Live for your facts clarification

  10. Michael Murphy says:

    I believe Ms Heiser and Ms. Holland are convinced their doing a great job, I as a motel manager I dont see it.They talk about bringing sports into Flagler because of a lacrosse game so they want to spend $150,000 on fixing the fields, now I am all for that as long as it doesnt come out of bed tax.They also think its a great idea to spend $150,000 on a privately owned marina at marine land how that helps tourism I dont know, coming out of bed tax. As I stated I manage a motel in Flagler and have for the last 7 years, I have seen little to no help from the Chamber,tourism board,enterprise flagler all they want to do is sell you ad space.I believe they cuddle up to big chains and forget about the mom and pop motels.Remember their new motto “THE QUIET SIDE OF FLORIDA” as they show images of high rises like Ginns mess on 16th street.I will leave you with this last rant, in Jan. 2011 we hosted the row teams from Syracuse univ. 80 students and 6 coaches they stayed for 12 days and spent alot of money.We did this with no help from the chamber,tourism board,or any other helpful group,and it cost the county nothing. Thank You Michael Murphy

  11. Michael Murphy says:

    To all motel/hotel owners/operators,one way to prevent abuse of bed tax dollars is to form a group,if we form a group we can demand to attend mettings and help determine the best projects to spend the funds that we generate, Known as bed tax. Remember its hard to turn away the group that works so hard in these trying times to fill our motel/hotels and create the bed tax. If your intrested in this idea please contact me through
    my e-mail at., we would have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

  12. palmcoaster says:

    Dear Michael Murphy thank you for the courage of your words. I am glad that we are gathering here more information about our elected politicians lobbying all the time to to give away wether our homes taxes or also the 4% bed tax they charge to anyone staying on the county and cities hospitality businesses. They always hand it out to wether the Chamber for Peggy Heiser “failed tourism promotion” or as promoted now by County Manager Coffey again 400,000 to the Chamber for ED.
    Michael you are one of us, businesses in this county “that get not help from this Chamber wether you are a member or not”. They only help the close neat elite well connected with them and their relatives salaries employed within. That is why I am proposing our cities to star ED programs of their own, inviting all the small business and retired professionals under the cities guidelines to star ED by volunteering few hours a week to call or contact on line prospective’s businesses and invite them to move to our paradise cities. Will take not 400,000 not 670,000 to FCOC and will be done under our really local guidelines and not from some outsider rocket scientist high priced consultant that knows jack about our local needs.
    You, I and all our colleague business, know much better what to do to attract tourists, bring new enterprises to open shop here and hire our local work force without any need or waste of any more tax dollars.
    Our TDC funds have been on the past just granted to the tunes of 70,000 and 150,000 to Ginn and for what for those Golf Tournaments with occupancy and meals only on his resort. We didn’t even see any of “those crowds” in the center of Palm Coast at the time. Also that grant to Thunder Gulch Seibel’s owned campground for a bikers weekend event to the tune of $68,000 few years ago. Well he was in the TDC Board then! Big conflict of interest that should be investigated. FCOC/TDC Heiser is handed over 670,000/year TDC Grant four Tourism Development and I don’t see one add in any of the national publications, that instead are plastered with; Visit GA, AZ, AL, TX and all the different attractions within their states. When I see something about Florida is for Daytona Beach or the Gulf Coast but never Flagler county and its quiet side…The only thing quiet here are their under shrouds deals to just benefit themselves. I could see Holland and Distefano in the last TDC meeting denying $10,000 grant, even a partial of it, for a physical fitness event that last January brought 400 paying athletes and all their families and friends for the Half Marathon. All competitors attending from outside Flagler county marveled about the beauty of our city and county…as they were not aware off. That is how well FCOC Peggy Heiser works on promoting this county. Also the Latino festival that brought over 3,000 people to this county in each of its 2 events promoting us, this year had to be canceled for lack of funding…they probably didn’t even need 10% of the 150,000 proposed by Heiser and Holland for the Lacrosse now. The bias plaguing TDC assignment of grants should be investigated. Also like I said before why is this Chamber holding all events only in the new Hilton or Ginn’s and even Thunder Gulch? I really like Mr. Grimes at the Hilton but using some fairness with the other hotels should be their motto. We need radical CHANGE in this organizations to attract tourism and promote ED without further wasting our hard earned tax dollars and treat all businesses on equal way as they are the ones that employ our local force.
    If anyone out there is going to accuse me of half truths, please feel free to go and request the TDC minutes of the meetings agendas and find out!

  13. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Mr. Murphy, as a Flagler Beach resident and taxpayer, I wonder what you thought of the FB commission changing the short term rental ordinance to allow private homes in residential areas outside the so-called business district to be treated as motels/hotels, but without the same oversight, rules, regs, etc.

    I was very surprised that they were able to push it through with only some opposition from us usual cranks and little, if any, opposition from the hospitality businesses.

  14. Michael Murphy says:

    Its the way they run business in flagler county.They have been renting condos at Ginns and european village like motel rooms ever sence they knew they couldnt sell them, nobody says a thing.The biggest reason theres little opposition from people in the business is because no one knows about the meetings.If we formed a group we would have more politicial punch and there fore some control in making choices on how to spend bed tax dollars,We collect them we should have some say on how there spent.

  15. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Granted, but those are commercial properties. I’m talking about private homes in residential neighborhoods in Flagler Beach, an independent city within the county that had a three month short term rental ordinance which was changed arbitrarily at the behest of a small very persistent and active group who have the ear of the commissioners. They can stuff two, three families in a residential house, park their bike trailers, etc. in the driveway or city street (we had gigantic trailors parked on the city street for at least a week), make noise, leave their garbage behind and the neighbors must put up with it and taxpayers pay for the extra services, etc. It’s a good deal for the home owners and the vacationers, but it takes money out of the pckets of the motel operators in the city, yet to my knowledge, there was little or no protest from them.

  16. palmcoaster says:

    Mr. Murphy I fully understand your frustration for the TDC bias and support mostly of their close neat elite, totally ignoring the rest of you.
    The TDC meetings should be a must for anyone like yourself operating a hospitality business in this county. Here for a taste of it is the past April TDC Meeting Agenda. So all here can get an idea.
    Notice that the Award meeting proposed by Heiser was to be held at the “Ginn’s” Sundancer…as many other events thru out the year. If you analyze all events are mostly geared to Hilton, Thunder Gulch and Ginn as all their heads are in TDC Board Mr. Grimes, Mr. Seibel and Mrs Mitchell.
    Heisers and Baxter, Chamber Elite, “media tours do no work” where these 4 or six reporters write in the local Penny Savers or in the well financed by TDC local Parents Magazine? We are suppossed to advertise out of state to generate hotel occupancy. I never see any advertisement in any of our national publications wher I never see anything about our county. Also for sure Mr. Baxter outsource all his media funded by TDC , creating wealth and jobs in Volusia County and elsewhere. Then he wants more tax payers funds now proposed by County Manager Coffey, the latest to the tune of $400,000 as reported, to generate Economic Development. Good way to lead the fox further into the chicken coop. The Flagler County Chamber of “Un” Commerce obviously only has maybe 9% membership of about total 9,000 businesses in this county and that alone speaks for itself.

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