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Economic Development Summit: Diagnostic Kumbayas Drown Out Harder Questions

| March 4, 2011

Spheres looking for a common strategy. (© FlaglerLive)

Government meetings rarely draw big crowds when matters in question don’t affect people directly. Economic hardship, chronic unemployment and foreclosures presumably affect large portions of Flagler County residents not only directly, but dramatically. Some 15.7 percent of the labor force was unemployed at last count, and Flagler remains among the top 20 most economically “stressed” counties in the country, based on foreclosures, lousy property values, unemployment and the like.

It was telling that the economic summit presumed to be of the highest importance by those who convened it—every local government agency in the county and then some—drew some 60 government representatives and their nominees, plus a few members of the chambers of commerce. But it drew no more than half a dozen individuals not somehow in government or running for office. Maybe it was the time of day, the day of the week, the location: starting an economic summit at 1 p.m. on a Friday in an ag extension center off the county fairgrounds doesn’t scream ga-ga popularity.

But if the public at large is either looking to its elected for solutions to the local economic crisis, you wouldn’t know it from the skeletal audience. If the public is trusting those elected to break through rivalries and debates on economic development as chronic as the crisis itself, it didn’t turn out to verify its trust.

Nor did Friday’s portion of the two-day summit break through either: Don Upton, the “facilitator” the county hired from Tampa-based Faifield Index Inc. to herd the congregation toward the achievable (“We help companies and communities become more competitive”) didn’t try. If he’s aware of the fault lines between governments, he didn’t tread on them. Upton’s aim was more in the role of cheerleader, motivational speaker and diagnostician than mediator.

In that, he was successful: after an hour-long introductory session affording every one of the 60 a chance to introduce himself, herself and the “skill sets” in tow, Upton, who vaguely looks like a 60s version of what Jack Lemmon would have looked like if he’d been a marketing specialist, spoke to the group from an assumption of unity: “This is a family and we’re well prepared to take on these issues.” He suggested everyone should honor new ideas and “think like a board for this marketplace for now.” There was no absence of good will to those ends, though good will has never been the issue.

The ensuing discussion was focused on known questions, not exploratory solutions: Is Palm Coast still a retirement community? Does Flagler County belong to the northern economic region of St. Johns and Jacksonville or to the central region of Daytona Beach, or even Orlando? Is it still the “red-headed stepchild” of economic regions? Do the county’s elected still think of hospitality and tourism as a dominant force? (Upton heard a hearty yes to that, though curiously, and aside from a Flagler Beach representative from that city’s museum, the group’s dearth of anyone connected with culture and the arts was striking.)

Starring Don Upton (© FlaglerLive)

And comment after comment was more diagnostic than analytical: what the county is competing against. What the county can offer (lots of unemployed workers looking for work, or being willing to be retrained). What got the county where it is: a mass of construction and real estate related workers busted out of work by the housing crash. What “industry clusters” the county should target. What streamlined systems governments could adapt to make it easier for businesses to thrive, and new businesses to migrate to Flagler. What makes communities tick, and what could make this one work (transportation, railroad service, ocean-point accessibility, low crime rate, recreation, good climate, cultural opportunities).

Upton had alluded to Florida’s economic trend over coming years, seen to be heavy on “STEM”—science, technology, engineering and medical jobs. But that didn’t grab too many imaginations in the subsequent hours.

Upton asked the assembly, in groups, to come up with versions of the county should look like in five to 10 years. The results were bracing for their optimism, but in a pie-in-the-sky sort of way. Commissioner Barbara Revels’s vision included a diversified county with a balanced tax base, a vibrant and varied economy, a flexible workforce, a still-attractive quality of life, a public transportation system, a county with a national presence and a self-perpetuating funding source for economic development. “Thank you, nice job,” Upton told her.

Upton’s strongest drive for an insight into Flagler’s sense of itself was question: “prove it.” Whenever someone spoke of the county’s qualities, he didn’t want to hear only those qualities. He wanted to know what set them apart from everyone else’s. He wanted to get past the echo chamber of self-congratulations. Answers to that question were elusive.

So when Upton finally summed up the essence of Flagler’s qualities, based on the assembly’s various visions, he came up with this:  Location, quality of life, a desire for clean technology (“not a heck of a lot there”), basic beauty and the environment, good schools.

Upton was not impressed. “You look like the rest of America,” he said. Then again, Upton did not quite show how his skills were applied to this assembly any differently than they might have been to an assembly in Dubuque, Iowa. His promise that the county could rise above its competitors if the assembly could list its goals as the raw material for a county-wide strategic plan had something of a Lake Wobegon effect (where manages to be above average): if it’s that simple, why aren’t other counties zooming forward? But that was everyone’s homework for the evening: drafting strategic goals.

“Give me one place that I can go to tonight and look up on their website that you could say would most represent what we want to be,” Rich Smith, a developer, asked Upton. Upton, the length of whose resume had just been commended, punted: “Can I take that as homework tonight?”

4-H for the economy: the assembly on Friday at the Agricultural Extension Center on County Road 13 near the county fairgrounds. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Last month when this economic summit was set, it was clear that this county’s governments all had the same goal (more economic development), but very different ways of getting there. That’s not necessarily unexpected or bad: Palm Coast’s interests aren’t the same as the county’s, for example. But some differences amounted to deal-breakers, including two cities’ opposition to a sales tax to fund economic development, and serious disagreements over who would be the leading economic development agency, if anyone. Because of those differences, the chamber of commerce suggested—and others agreed—a mediated meeting where common interests would be ferreted out and perhaps built on, understanding that some differences would remain. What the county lacked was a clear way to some common, pragmatic solutions every agency could agree on.

Those roads were not explored Friday. The first day, in other words, was given over to the overly familiar from a perspective that never questioned the happy premise that, in Upton’s words, everyone in the room was one family, ready to have its own, common “strategic goals.”

If there is a method to Upton’s madness, several congregants said afterward, maybe it will seem more apparent on Saturday. (Yes, they do it all over again Saturday, beginning at 8 a.m. and running possibly all day.)

Mary DiStefano, the Palm Coast city council member, said she didn’t hear anything that she hadn’t heard before. Milissa Holland, the county commissioner, said she had participated in several similar sessions where at first nothing seemed cohesive, only for the process to work itself out into a clearer picture by the end. She’s hoping for just such a framework by Saturday: a solid strategic vision for the county that would also have every agency’s buy-in. But she pointed out another striking characteristic of the day: the cliques were in evidence. Each government sat in a cluster, with its own couple of nominees from the community. There was little cross-fertilization.

Barr, too, was hopeful about Saturday. “The groundwork that he’s been laying is that we do have a lot in common,” he said, referring to Upton. But he wasn’t betting on Upton managing  the assembly through a resolution of its fundamental differences. “It’s going to be a hat trick if he does, because it’s not going to be easy.”

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10 Responses for “Economic Development Summit: Diagnostic Kumbayas Drown Out Harder Questions”

  1. lawabidingcitizen says:

    What utter balderdash.

    The public wasn’t there because there is no there there. We don’t need a facilitator to tell us this is a community that has allowed itself to be seduced by vested interest developers into “investing” in development.

    This area prospered because it offered good value to people looking for comfortable affordable houses in the sunshine — whether for retirement or second homes. Businesses that catered to this population also prospered, then greed took hold — the area was overbuilt — the real estate bubble burst — end of story.

    Everybody go home and stop spending more of our money on your blathering.

  2. Lolita john says:

    Here’s my first impression of Palm Coast when we moved here in 2005.

    Palms Coast has a hard edgyness to it that made it seem as though it had a long, harsh and tired life.

    Similar to a lady of the night / aging actress (sometimes they’re one and the same) who knows her days are over but is unable to accept it because there is nothing else that she knows do. Besides she still has to live and so she gets dolled up everyday and goes out hoping to turn another trick just to make it through because she cannot afford not to – she still needs to survive. She has nothing to her name and all practical thoughts and plans are a lost cause because she squandered it all when life was good and now it’s too late.

    Well Palm Coast – I am not going to become one of your johns (willing or unwilling). I’m moving on.

    Hope this helps you to see it from a citizen’s perspective.

  3. palmcoaster says:

    Sure we didn’t need this “facilitator” at 14,000 to 22,000, if this meeting is not over tomorrow. What an outsider from our county can come at an outrageous pay rate and tell us that we already know and we know it better.
    As a resident and business owner I suggested our elected ones to star energizing our economy by no longer outsourcing our government contracts and promote that way the use of our local small businesses, services and contractors. That alone will create hundreds of “for sure jobs”. No need for additional increase of any taxes, grants, relocation expenses, tax subsidies or tax breaks. We are all right here and now just use our services and machine. Promote the local businesses and shopping malls all over our cities, not just one. Bring more sports events like the successful Half Marathon in Palm Harbor. Set up a program of commissions for realtors, residents, locals businesses and or government employees and or professionals and anyone that invites and brings a business to settle in this county that will hire at least 2 new workers in town and after the commitment is finalized. The more workers hired the higher the commission. When a developer expects special attention and or approval should be done after a clause to hire first, man and machine within the county. No excuses please. This will be a very positive and totally no costly start for a very realistic economic development.
    What about targeting businesses in the frozen North in winter, to move to our paradise? The Internet is a very efficient and inexpensive tool for that and can be done on a commission basis also. Get a group of retired volunteer professionals, as we have so many and probably willing to help on the economic recovery and just for pride to do that work. Lets think about what is the business in particular that yet, we do not have in this county, and go for those first. Promote local networking by setting a good example first.
    It is such an absurd reality going to all the big box stores and large chain clothes retailers and see how ignorant is to have all they sale made overseas…so don’t they think that their greed ultimately will end their businesses, as the unemployed they create won’t be able to afford their goods any longer in this country?That is the sad big picture, at national, state and city levels as well.

  4. Richard says:

    Hi!. I sat in the audience for the first hour or so then left for more productive business. I’m not quite sure what to make of your comparison of Upton and John Lennon, but I suspect you do John Lennon an injustice.

    I hope tomorrow they may separate the issues into short term (getting jobs for the people here, reducing the blighted foreclosed homes, and reducing crime) and the long term (creating a more balanced economy, with a skilled educated population, and appropriate infrastructure both for tourism, small manufacturing industries, and professional service business.)

    Unfortunately a large number of the participants are in the development and real estate business on which Flagler County depended so much during its boom years. Perhaps these are the people on which our retraining efforts should be concentrated. I noted little participation in the meeting from retail, restaurants or recreational (tourism) business. Let alone, as you noted, from cultural or arts organizations.

    There were a good number of people like myself, who retired from significant positions in large corporations, but our interests in moving here were to find a nice place to retire. We would like to see it prosperous, but we have our own motivation which has to be balanced against the other needs of the community.

  5. nan says:

    Richard, your problem may have been that you listened as well as you read. Jack Lemmon not John Lennon. Also, the summit is and economic one, not dealing with crime issues, foreclosures. We are working at finding a common ground for building a more diversified community with jobs available to those who are willing to work. This was the first day, not much was expected to be accomplished on the first afternoon. Today will be a more down to the nitty-gritty. I don’t expect miracles, although I would thankfully accept one.

    I am not sure that FlaglerLives pierre was at the same meeting as I. We have very different perspectives of what was and was not accomplished. Perhaps, he can provide the answers to the problems and how to bring back prosperity to Flagler County. I know that I don’t have the answer.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      nan, it’d be nice if you identified yourself fully, especially if you’re directly involved in this summit, as opposed to being a mere observer. Maybe you’re both. And if you’ve been here both days, you’d have noticed that I’ve spent quite a bit of time speaking with participants, or spoken with those who stopped by the media table to share their perspectives –which are reflected in this piece. You could have stopped by to offer yours, especially if you had a different view, understanding that 60 participants would yield 60 different perspectives. Check out Rashomon on Netflix.

  6. Palm Coast Pioneers says:

    Palm Coast was not a retirement community; perhaps he should have first read: ‘…an approach to a New City; Palm Coast..’ first.
    I.T.T. Levitt, later I.T.T. Community Development Corp, one of the largest conglomerates in the world had a massive ‘Brain Trust’. I.T.T. used this ‘brain trust’ to promote the ‘Palm Coast Project’ nationally and internationally. Year after year the ‘Braintrust’ improved their receipe and fine tuned the successful I.T.T. recipe; and we came…whether it be for Industry at the Palm Coast Four Industrial Parks, or to retire, or to have a second home , or for the excellent School system for our youngsters. or a vacation get-away- or investment….but we slowly came….
    As in ‘ …an approach to a New City; Palm Coast…’ ( 1972 ) we developed, past the Butcher/Baker/Candlestick Maker stage and we became and the ‘Boomtown’ of last century which attracted more people to the ‘ Unique Total Environmental Community’ , with heavy emphasis on Education, Culture, and Recreation.
    sadly successful *recipe* was changed….

    Law abiding citizen said it succinctly:

    This area prospered because it offered good value to people looking for comfortable affordable houses in the sunshine — whether for retirement or second homes. Businesses that catered to this population also prospered, then greed took hold — the area was overbuilt — the real estate bubble burst — end of story.

  7. palmcoaster says:

    Thank you Pierre, for being in the meeting. As most of us were not present.
    As for myself I was not present because the cliche’s and clicks will prevail regarding Who is Who, with constituents allowed or not to express their ideas. Imagine you had a school board member describing the realistic expression of the Palm Coast City manager “as creating angst”. Angst is what the tax payers feel when they receive the yearly tax bills. Just today I bought a lawn mower and $38, was my sales tax on the purchase and as is hard to earn then should not be wasted Mrs Concklin. You should be aware of the fact that some Palm Coasters like me agree in the penny tax for the school to be renewed…but do not press you lack with your expressions pressing for more. Keep in mind that the average income of Flagler residents seats at only $30,000 and none of them have the additional bonus you get as a school board member or the hefty over $40,000/year that County Commissioners get for “serving us” .
    Also my gratitude to Richard for attempting at least to be in that meeting if only for one hour, also for being a retiree in Palm Coast, but sincerely caring for the betterment of our community. Your description of the entities present and their rhetoric, speak obviously for the issues outcome so far.

  8. ForThePeople says:

    So palm coast pioneer do you want to turn back the clock 40 years. In that time nobody had any fore sight to think about what palm coast would be other than a reticent community. These people “running” the city look like idiots. They make huge imvestments in attracting businesses that have a very limited life, palm coast data, for example. They have not made investments in infrastructre that would bring manufacturing or high tech companies here. But then again you need to have people that can fill those job but when all you have are construction, lawn maintenance, and pool cleaning companies no high tech company will come into town.

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