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Rites of Spring: Flagler’s Jobs Council Retreats to Princess Place for Goal-Setting With CEO

| March 28, 2012

The jobs council was putting in a day-long session in the rustic lodge at Princess Place. (FlaglerLive)

It’s Flagler County’s rite of spring: government agencies and private-sector partners get together and talk a great deal about how they’re going to turn around the county’s dismal economy, only to founder from poor planning, political splintering, or too much talk and too little action.

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Two years ago it was the now-defunct Enterprise Flagler economic development agency’s plan to raise property taxes to build the sort of floor space that would attract a certain type of employer. The plan collapsed before making it to voters’ ballots. Last year, it was that series of county-wide economic development “summits” that gathered politicians from every local government plus private sector leaders in day-long meetings facilitated by a very expensive mediator.

The result was small-bore achievements few people could define outside the little committees that developed them, and a certified split between the county’s two main governments: Palm Coast and Flagler County. They each went their own way. Palm Coast focused on its Business Assistance Center, which helps small businesses start up or stay in business, for about the same amount of money the city contributed to Enterprise Flagler. Flagler County opted to yet again start another economic development council, a few years after ending one, but with a $430,000 annual budget.

That nine-member jobs council, chaired by Barbara Revels, who is also chairing the county commission this year, led to this year’s edition of the spring ritual: a council retreat to the quaint lodge at Princess Place Preserve for a day-long goal-setting session “to lead Flagler County out of the dismal economic landscape of 2006-2012 and into an exciting new era of sustainable growth, creativity, job creation and revenue generation.”

The heady words are those of Helga van Eckert, the county’s new economic development director, hired out of a somewhat similar position in Perth Amboy, N.J., to be Flagler County’s latest wizard. The previous wizard, Greg Rawls, sat to her left at the council’s U-shape table. Rawls led Enterprise Flagler until Palm Coast and the county summarily executed the 10-year-old agency last summer, citing its thin accomplishments. He’s one of van Eckert’s staffers for now, and at least through October.

The council. Click on the image for larger view. (FlaglerLive)

Aside from two reporters, three county staffers and one county commissioner (Alan Peterson, who’s attended most economic development meetings), the retreat attracted only five other people: Doug Baxter, the president of the county chamber of commerce; Charlie Ericksen, who’s challenging Peterson in the coming Republican primary (they sat at opposite ends of the room), Bob Alex, a regular at these meetings and a former colleague of Eckert’s in New Jersey, and Mick Cuthbertson, a top administrator in Bunnell’s government.

Eckert immediately took control of the meeting when it began at 9, laying out an agenda that by noon was to lay out the council’s mission statement, its vision, and its priorities. Van Eckert appeared to have been leading the council for years, not months, and with a combination of clarity and sense of purpose that these rituals have lacked on previous occasions.

“Knowledgeable, experienced, a good facilitator to channel the views in concise steps,” is how Peterson summed up van Eckert’s style during a break.

By 10 the group had its mission statement: “Facilitate the expansion and diversification of the county’s economic base with targeted businesses that provide sustainable employment opportunities for its residents.” It would hone its vision from  this working draft: “Have a quality of life with sustainable, environmentally sound industry that support a solid economic base.”

Helga van Eckert and Commissioner Alan Peterson during a break. Click on the image for larger view. (FlaglerLive)

The group then moved on to the heart of the day’s purpose: what it would actually do in coming months to earn its existence (council members aren’t paid): how to market the county’s agency (a strong, professional-looking  internet presence), how to meet with site-selectors (company prospectors looking for business locations), how and when to engage with the community (quarterly town hall meetings are a favorite, though attendance may be a challenge), using the county library as a disseminator of information. The group intends to develop partnerships with the Business Assistance Center and local Realtors and officials, but the meaning of “partnership” is undefined. And of course spreading the message of the council, but with uniformity.

“It’s great that this organization has representation out there by people who understand what’s going on and who really want to make a difference,” van Eckert said. “To me this is where branding comes in, it’s like your elevator speech.”

Mike Gill, a member of the council, had put it sharply in different words earlier:  “Having a road map that is crystal-friggin’ clear.”

There were a few other sharpened observations (“I don’t think we need a Palm Coast jingle,” Frank Zedar said, a reference to Palm Coast’s recent “Find Your Florida” video-jingle). But as the morning wore on the discussion again and again meandered from tangent to tangent as the members re-worded much of what’s been said before, especially regarding the type of industries to go after, or (as in the case of Whitney labs in Marineland), what job-makers the council needs to ensure stay in place. There wasn’t much clarity on those industries except for those the county doesn’t want to lose (the Federal Aviation Administration training facility in Palm Coast was another).

Approaching noon, van Eckert had to tell the council that if its objectives weren’t all set by lunch time, that segment of the retreat would be continued at a subsequent meeting of the council. The group agreed: Eckert had booked a speaker for lunch (Michael Breen, a member of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and its “Cornerstone” organization, a regional economic development agency). The afternoon session was to be a more general discussions on “moving forward.”

Not a bad place for lunch. The table hosted by Barbara Revels. Click on the image for larger view. (FlaglerLive)

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7 Responses for “Rites of Spring: Flagler’s Jobs Council Retreats to Princess Place for Goal-Setting With CEO”

  1. Gia says:

    Theses yoyo’s have no common sense & do not see the reality of life. It’s not by going somewhere else that you get better ideas. They are only wasting taxpayers money. Another joke.

  2. JGA says:

    When are the tax payers going to finally see some results, i’m not interested in the lunches and the serene places that they go for these retreats under the guise of doing something for the community, I want to see results!!!!!!!

  3. palmcoaster says:

    @Gia and JGA. Totally agree with you both. Who’s snob was, with the Princess Place idea..? Waste of time on the taxpayers pockets…maybe to discourage people to be present at the meeting held on the bun docks. Were the taxpayers booting all the goodies including their hour labor, gas and time back and forth, allowed to attend the meeting? Or only the big same useless, tax revenue hungry, honchos invited?
    We are supposed to pay to wine and dine the volunteers and paid stuff before any achievement materializes, as usual?

  4. Think first, act second says:

    I am perplexed why the need for a “retreat” instead of holding meetings in the GSB, which we paid dearly for? I was unaware of the meeting so the posting and advance disclosure was poor, at best. What is the need for secrecy? Revels has tried to make us think she is on top of the subject, but fails miserably in performing. What were the final results of a full day of meetings, a mission statement? At that rate by Christmas we will be at the jingle process, and still no economic development but $400,000 poorer. Get off the perception of making it look like you are doing something, and actually get down and do something!

  5. Will says:

    Since Ms. van Eckert has only been here a few weeks, it looks to me like she’s taking the lead in focusing the brand new board on the tasks at hand. Having a day long meeting in a quiet place away from many distractions can be valuable in creating the working relationships she’ll need to be successful. The writers before me demanding results and complaining about costs aren’t all wrong, but I think that a little patience would be appropriate just now.

    • Dudley Doright says:

      We have had several years of patience. This retreat was a waste of our taxpayers money! I agree that they should have met at the GSB. I would have also required that ALL attendees leave their cell phones in their cars.

  6. Howard Duley says:

    Government by it’s very nature is a total waste of time. Nothing is ever accomplished. Jobs are created when there is a demand for products and services not when mandated by government. Look at all the useless departments in the federal government. They do nothing for the public but they draw nice pay and retirement benifits.

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