We’ve just witnessed within a single week the polar opposites of economic development in Flagler County. On January 13 the County Commission mercifully did what it should have done years ago: pull the plug on the extremely expensive life support that had kept the county’s economic development department going, at half a million dollars a year, with hardly any return but its own fantastic fictions about how great it was. No one turned up for the funeral, and there were no eulogies.
At the opposite end, last weekend at Palm Coast City Hall, we saw city offices transformed into a tiny astroturfed oasis of Silicon Valley as computer coders and developers clustered from around the state to take part in a competition and devise useful apps for real-world problems in local healthcare. It’s not the first thing you think of when you think economic development. But it should at least be part of the mix. It works better than when a local government picks and chooses winners among existing or imagined companies and hands out tax breaks like indulgences.
In a strange way for something so forward-looking, it harks back to eras when governments and scientific societies put up big prizes as incentives to discovery: the Orteig Prize, worth almost $400,000 in today’s dollars, was the financial Jet Stream behind Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Scientific societies, think tanks and companies were doing that since the 18th century. In 2007 Congress passed the America Competes Act, gives government agencies authority to sponsor invention contests. When Obama signed its reauthorization in 2010, purses were raised to $50 million. Palm Coast’s purse this weekend was $12,000. Same idea. It’s worth the money.
Reporters were given a tour of City Hall before the competition began. The place looked like it had never looked before, with weird zen spaces for yoga, a beach surrounded by tiki candles by the lake, a city council chamber turned into a playpen even more pronounced than when the city council gathers. The whole thing contrasted so much with how City Hall had seemed to me in previous years–the atmosphere anyway was more like a concentration camp than a public space–breathing as it did with the creativity of the kind of community it wants to advance. City Hall this past weekend conjured within its walls what it hopes to see happen beyond them, in Town Center’s “innovation district” and across the county.
It was not cheap. The city put up $60,000 from its Town Center Community Redevelopment budget, and four companies and the University of Florida combined for an additional $23,500 in cash donations (Coastal Cloud chipped in $10,000, AdventHealth and UNF $5,000 each, Douglas Properties $2,000, the Chiumento law firm $1,500), with another $20,000 in-kind. So a total of just over $100,000. Those dollars will have to be examined closely, as will the spending and the connection between the donors and the city: nothing is given for nothing.
But compare that with just one of the county’s economic development subsidies of the past few years, the $90,000 it put up for that so-called spec building on U.S. 1 that was supposed to attract new businesses, and that still sits there empty–even as the former economic development director was reportedly trying to get the county to build another structure like it on airport property. That initiative went nowhere, attracted nobody, and produced not an iota of good publicity for Flagler County. So it’s been with most of the county’s alleged economic development projects, many of which, like the recent vaporization of a furniture-manufacturing deal, ended up blackening the county’s eye.
In contrast Palm Coast’s Beach Tech Hackathon, as the weekend was dubbed, brought to the city value-added attention and marketing possibilities, and can do so again if this turns into an annual event. Yes, it was expensive, but only relatively so. It was not speculative money so much as seeding the sort of industry and economic energy the city wants to develop here, especially along the lines of medical and technical fields. If you’re going to spend the money, might as well spend it on something with a direct, visible impact, and with accountability measurable in the present, not on a spreadsheet fabricating made-up windfalls years down the line.
Of course there’s risk and none of this is exactly proven, either. It could all fizzle to nothing and City Hall could very well go back to the $10 million Potemkin façade it had been in its more lugubrious days. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve been hoodwinked (which is why I’m not a great fan of government pretending to know how to do economic development). But indications say otherwise. The competition was exciting, and for a first edition of such an event (the whole thing was somehow developed in three months by what amounts to a team experienced elsewhere but still adapting to Palm Coast), it was pulled off with remarkable skill, as contestants themselves told us, and what I thought was touching, loving attention to detail in so many regards. This was not gloss for its own sake or even PR’s sake: the quality was authentic.
Just based on what was accomplished this weekend, including the embryonic creation of actual apps that caught the attention of AdventHealth, we know the city is at least onto something original and creative. As risks go, Palm Coast is spending less money for a greater chance of returns on an approach less trickle-down than entrepreneurial: hackathons make things happen in the here and now, essentially manufacturing a future before our eyes, custom-made to our own community.
We don’t need economic development departments, their cults of confidentiality, their dubious subsidies, their bogus projections of happy days around corners that never end. We need more of what Palm Coast did this weekend: send convention packing and unbind Prometheus.