Flagler County government created its economic development department In January 2012. That month, Flagler County had 37,000 people with jobs, and an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent. Last month the county had 47,000 people with jobs, and an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. In other words, 10,000 people who live in Flagler have gained jobs in eight years or so.
The day Helga van Eckert was hired as the economic development director, then-County Administrator Craig Coffey joked that the newly established economic development board had two months to produce 200 jobs. You’d be hard pressed to find that the board and the department produced much more than that in eight years, though it’s cost taxpayers about $3.5 million in that time span. The number of times the board has met may well exceed the number of jobs it helped create.
The department at the county administration building shows off a few gaudy posters of companies it “landed,” but you can count them on one hand, plus a finger or two. There’s a reason the department never produced a tally sheet showing what it has in fact produced, over and above PR promises. It would be an embarrassment if it did, especially if you include the companies it pretended were sure things, only to have those deals collapse after the glossy press releases were issued, falsely claiming victory.
We’re not just talking about Discovery World Furniture, the latest of those collapses. The deal looked questionable from the start. The county was willing to give a nearly $700,000 tax break to the company even though, as Palm Coast banker and economic development cheerleader Bruce Page–who co-owns the land of Discovery–told the Ormond Beach City Commission, almost all of its employees would live and spend in Volusia, paying taxes in Volusia. Sure we should be happy for jobs wherever they are–but not at the expense of our own tax subsidies, which the company would have had to use to
Commissioners were willing to provide the gift long past their own expiration dates (the annual tax breaks would have stretched toward the end of the next decade) even though the amateurs at economic development hadn’t checked behind Realtor Margaret Sheehan-Jones’s inaccurate claim that water and sewer were secured for the site. County Administrator Jerry Cameron, a fixer by trade, did a lot of scrambling to fix that situation and get Ormond Beach to agree to hook the place up with water and sewer, but it was too late, the company owner pulled out.
It was a repeat of the Aveo Engineering catastrophe. You might remember that flight of fancy: the promise of 300 jobs at the airport, complete with a groundbreaking featuring Governor Scott and every blind suit in the county. More failures followed happy PR announcements, like that Georgian (as in the former Soviet Republic) stoneworks company getting a $15,000 incentive two years ago to create 40 jobs locally (10 of them “indirect” in that magical-realism way of economic development fabulists), though we never heard of it again after the PR blast. What about that “spec” building to which the county provided $90,000 in subsidies over 10 years? The building–previously brokered by Shehan-Jones (she said this month she was no longer the broker)–was supposed to be a magnet for new manufacturing companies. It’s been sitting vacant for over a year, so desperate for tenants that it was briefly considered as a temporary sheriff’s operations center (the sheriff didn’t go for it: too expensive, too temporary.)
Most of the subsidies are structured as “performance-based,” so the county didn’t actually lose any of that subsidy on the furniture or the stoneworks companies, or on Aveo. But the economic development department and its sycophants brandish that qualifier as exculpatory, when they should be focused on the deceptions of their PR machine and the continued waste in operating expenses of that barely-performing economic development department. They got all the public play they wanted with announcements of these alleged victories only to leave us with little Potemkins (surely built with beautiful facades from that Georgian company). And still they gather once a month as a board to pat each other on the back and tell their audience of six what an extraordinary, what a glorious job their department is doing. At least the money the department spends to publicize itself is paying dividends.
And if you include projects the board and van Eckert took credit for, even though they had hardly anything to do with them, like Coastal Cloud or the recent decision by Flagler Hospital to set up a beach-head in Palm Coast, the picture gets more embarrassing still. To look viable of course the department has no choice but to take credit for things it had little to do with other than as a glorified receptionist.
The number I mentioned a couple of minutes ago says it all: 10,000 jobs created in those eight years, almost all of them no thanks to that department. The department was created as a spur to the local economy. Had it never been created, that spur would have happened anyway–and who knows what else might have happened had the obviously clumsy hands of the department not interfered. Yet it continues to pick and choose its cozy relationships and favored businesses at public expense. Funny how this economic development board stocked with fiscal conservatives turn socialists at the drop of a taxpayer-funded subsidy that validates their pretentions.
You can claim that its existence helps the economic climate that produced those 10,000 jobs, but if you want to go down that route, you might as well take credit for the jobs in Palm Coast, Volusia, St. Johns, or Wichita County, Kansas, which had an unemployment rate of 1.5 percent last month. Our economic development department isn’t just fond of fictional economic-multipliers, but of its own multiplying fishes and loaves.
And still, this half million dollar a year drain on local government continues. The money is paying for a fantastic marketing machine–not for Flagler County, but for the economic development department itself. It’s not small change. That half-million dollar is enough to put four cops on the streets, to run the county’s emergency helicopter 24 hours a day instead of 12 (which saves lives, not imaginary jobs), to better support social services like the Family Life Center, to more than fully staff the future public library branch in Bunnell.
Flagler’s economic development department is more than a drain. It’s an indefensible waste at taxpayers’ expense. County government can do the job of economic development receptionist for the same results, and a fraction of the cost. It’s time to do so.