There will be a new county economic development council. It will be a nine-member board, entirely appointed by the Flagler County Commission. Cities will not be invited to participate as members of that board. It will have an annual $400,000 budget, entirely paid for with county tax-dollars, which will pay for a “CEO,” who will be in charge of hiring her or his own staff. How much money would be left to market development, what that board’s strategy will be, where the development staff will be housed, is less clear.
A divided county commission agreed to those terms on Monday, with a particularly strong dissent from Commissioner Barbara Revels and more exasperated opposition from George Hanns. The division is not a good sign for a plan predicated on universal “buy-in.”
“I believe it leaves our business community out and I believe it leaves our cities out,” Revels said, “and would or could become an entity that’s not based on reality—real people on the street that are working here in the community, working in and around the government requirements, that’s why I kept saying that this needs to be a whole community involvement with real city buy-in and business community buy-in.”
While eight members of the board culled from the business community appear to represent just what Revels has in mind, she said she was concerned that several of the representatives would be the retired type who may have had economic development experience elsewhere, but never created a single job in Flagler County.
The proposal, supported by County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson and commissioners Milissa Holland and Nate McLaughlin, drew a variety of responses from officials in the county’s three principal cities.
Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts called it “probably the most streamlined approach, the one that will probably be the most palatable,” because it skirts the issue of what he’s been calling pay-to-play—that is, the requirement that participating cities contribute money to the development budget. Palm Coast has been opposed to that all along, just as it’s been opposed to looking subservient to a county board. Portraying the county-wide board as representing all cities, even in their absence, was Palm Coast’s way of retreating with its honor—and its own economic development initiative—intact. “Once you start to get the cities involved, we get the 800-pound gorilla discussion going, who should pay, pay to play,” Netts said.
But Bunnell and Flagler Beach started their own “Coalition of Cities” in response, precisely, to feeling excluded from a previous plan, floated by the late Enterprise Flagler partnership. On Monday, Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez, who leads the coalition, was nevertheless supportive of the county’s new approach. “If the county is involved, the cities are automatically represented because the county represents all of us,” he said.
Flagler Beach Acting City Manager Bruce Campbell was more disappointed. “I’m not real thrilled about what I read,” Campbell said Tuesday. “I would think that we would try to structure it so that all the municipalities in Flagler County would not only be able to be part of it but be a working participant.” Jane Mealy, the Flagler Beach city commissioner, had used almost the same words when addressing the county commission before its economic development discussion Monday: “I’m probably the only one in the room who’s actually going to ask you to spend money, but I think in the end it will work out better for everyone,” Mealy said, commending the commission for finally taking action. “I’m hoping that you’ll come up with a good economic development plan for this county, and take some of the tax burden off the citizens by having more business here. My last point would be that I hope you include all of the cities in whatever that plan is.”
But as the discussion narrowed on the make-up of the EDC board, Peterson was adamant: no cities on the board, and no involvement from the cities “until we get somebody here.” In other words, until a business prospect is recruited, and the board parcels out the prospect to one of the cities, depending on that prospect’s needs.
McLaughlin, who had championed a model mixing government and business representatives, was surprised.
“You don’t think a municipality should have a member on the EDC board?” McLaughlin asked, referring to the would-be Economic Development Council.
“No, I do not,” Peterson said.
“I actually agree with Allen,” Milissa Holland said.
“Hmmm,” McLaughlin responded. “I didn’t envision that.”
“This is a nine-member board and I think the most experienced people should be on that board,” Peterson said. By experience, he meant economic development experience, including retirees in the area.
“Then would you say each municipality could vet one person?” McLaughlin asked, trying a different approach.
“No,” Peterson said.
Again an “hmmm” from McLaughlin.
Peterson amends his answer, but not clearly: “Well, yes, they could do that, but the decision, yes, but the decision would come—I have no problem with a whole group of people vetting, but all that information and all that rationale comes to the county.” That is, the county commission.
Yet McLaughlin agreed to the approach, and with Holland and Peterson, gave the new approach the majority nit needed for County Administrator Craig Coffey to put together a draft proposal by Sept. 7. The EDC board would presumably be chaired by Commissioner Barbara Revels, who, her colleagues said, has the most economic development experience.
Ironically, Revels is opposed to the EDC proposal. She had presented her own, a very similar version to the late Enterprise Flagler board, combining business and cities’ representatives on a 12-member board, but also drawing a portion of its budget from memberships from local businesses. “This sounds to me like Enterprise Flagler with just another name,” Peterson said.
Revels may still serve as the new board’s chairperson: it’s one way for the commission to get her buy-in. But she wants to see the details of Coffey’s draft first.
Commissioner George Hanns spoke little, and did so only to share his skepticism about the new plan. “It seems like every three years we do this and all we do is infuriate more people and we give more people that are newer people who have never—again I emphasize—done nothing for Flagler County, and albeit they may have some background in what was successful somewhere else.”
Much of the 75-minute discussion on Monday had meandered around the minutiae of the board’s make-up, where its staff would be located, how it would be paid, what the CEO’s role would be, so that even Holland, who supports the overall plan, tried to clarify her support before it was hijacked to a different end (as has happened before with plans she had supported): “Economic development means something different to each and everyone of us,” Holland said, “and until we come up with a unified message, then we’re going to have very different strategies, and we keep going around and around in circles and not getting to the point. If we don’t all agree upon a strategy moving forward, we’re not going to get anywhere. And I agree, the transition doesn’t matter, nor does funding, nor does strategies, nor does a board make-up nor does framework until we come up with a core of what we feel is our target for economic development, and your economic development initiatives may be entirely different than my economic development initiatives, but until we come up with a unified front or at least a consensus, then we’re going to be sitting here spinning our wheels and sitting here till five o’clock this evening and not getting anywhere, and I’m not interested in doing that.”
The bare consensus did not, however, produce the strategy Holland was looking for, let alone a unified message.