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Jobs Council Interviews 3 Vastly Different Candidates for Top Economic Development Job

| January 5, 2012

A few members of the Flagler County jobs council listened to an early pitch by a potential executive director this morning. They were in for a long day of interviews. (© FlaglerLive)

Unlike, say, Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, job interviews for a $100,000 economic development executive post aren’t exactly absorbing. The necessary questions can be plodding (“what training has prepared you for the marketing portion of this position?”) and the answers richer in jargon and clichés than anything quotable. But what members of Flagler County’s new jobs council were looking for in live interviews with three finalists for the job Thursday had as much to do with substance as those intangibles that can define a right fit better than notches on a résumé: demeanor, personality, humor, sharpness, confidence.

What they got were three vastly different candidates, none lacking in confidence, experience or enthusiasm, and each projecting enough qualities but sharply different temperaments to make a choice between them quite difficult. That choice may well be made as early as Friday, when the jobs council convenes again at 9 a.m. to decide whether to hire one of the three or to reopen the process for more candidates. The latter possibility is unlikely: After almost two years of prevarication on government-led economic development in the county, the council can’t afford very many more punts. Nor can its eventual new hire afford them, which is why one of the questions posed was in the shape of a third rail: “If you are selected, how would you define ‘success’ near term (1-2 years) and longer term (3-5 years)?”

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The candidates found various ways not to assign precise numbers to the answer, such as actual job creations, and one of them shrugged off something he’d read “in the media” about creating 200 jobs within a certain period—a shrug-off council members joined, even though the figure actually appears in an analysis prepared by County Administrator Craig Coffey as the actual job creation expected annually with an economic development budget of about $400,000 (the actual budget in place for now).

The formalities of the day began at 9 a.m. in the main chambers of the Government Services Building in Bunnell. Chairman Barbara Revels convened the nine-member jobs council and summoned each of the three candidates in turn to make a brief introduction to the full council. The panel then broke up into three smaller groups in three separate conference rooms on the third floor. Individual candidates appeared before each group, round robin style, for about 50 minutes each, answering three different sets of questions, depending on the group.

Both the introductory portion of the interviews and the small-group format were open to press, public and county staff, but aside from three reporters, only one county commissioner—Alan Peterson—and two private citizens attended portions of the small-group interviews, as did County Administrator Craig Coffey and his deputy, Sally Sherman. Other commissioners and a broader segment of the public, including business and government types, were expected  at a social meet-and-greet with the three candidates this evening, hosted by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce.

The three candidates are Chris Clifton, Helga van Eckert and Bruce Register.

Christopher Clifton. (© FlaglerLive)

Clifton, of Collierville, Tenn., appeared before the full council first. He was the most self-assured and informal of the three (by the time he was making his rounds in the smaller groups he was reclining in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head, dropping witticisms). He was at ease speaking on a range of qualifications—site selection, communications, “synergies,” building relationships—but he was also the least specific of the three, his direct experience having more to do with commercial real estate brokering than strict economic development, though in his line of work the two intersected richly.

Clifton spoke in broad generalities and dropped innumerable names and connections, especially connections with Florida businesses (and personal connections in the state, too) and state government, which he plans to cultivate, as opposed to outlining clear strategies. One exception: he recurringly spoke of a 100-day plan, entailing getting to know the area, its politicians and its businesses, including every company with 10 or more employees.

He found a nice way to apologize and backtrack from what may have been construed as an indelicate comment during his phone interview with the council last month (when he started an answer by saying, “between us girls”). He picked up the phrase, he said, from the first female mayor in Kentucky’s history, for whom he worked on her economic development team as a graduate student. It was a clever way to attribute the phrase to someone feminists would have been proud of. Clifton, who also used the first person singular more than his two competitors, finished one of his round-robin interviews by telling the group: “My wife told me not to come back home without a job.”

Helga van Eckert. (© FlaglerLive)

Helga van Eckert—who wore a Flagler County pin during her interviews–was not looking to leave her current job as the executive director of the Perth Amboy economic development department, which she’s held for a year and a half after leading the city’s redevelopment agency for a decade. But the Flagler job posting intrigued her—as it might anyone from Perth Amboy, an industrial port city for which the Garden State was not named, but whose profile and fortunes have been reinvented over the past several years.

She’d prepared a small brief for every council member, which she distributed and summarized to highlight accomplishments during her tenure: turning a 70-acre tank farm that once belonged to the Chevron Corporation into 1.2 million square feet of light industrial and office space that created more than 600 jobs and generates $3 million in annual taxes, and launching a $178 million project that would turn environmentally contaminated land into 2.2 million square feet of retail, office and light industrial space. Van Eckert did not include a New York Times article about Perth Amboy, from about a year ago, that sang the praises of a reborn Bay City (as Perth Amboy is nicknamed), now rejuvenated enough to be the playground of Staten Island residents across the waterway—and to attract new residents taking advantage of less expensive housing. Unlike most other cities in New Jersey, Perth Amboy has actually grown over the decade.

“We’re preparing comprehensive packages and really working with the businesses to keep them here,” van Eckert told the council, referring to the city’s redevelopment plans. She spoke assertively but unassumingly throughout, without notes, her focus almost exclusively on accomplishments—and what she described as contacts in local and state government, including the governor’s office, to ensure that the city’s interests stayed a priority.

Bruce Register. (© FlaglerLive)

Bruce Register, who spent most of the last decade and a half as Hillsborough County’s corporate business development manager, was two different persons during his interviews. In his presentation to the full council during the earlier portion of the interviews, he was wooden and spoke in monotones as he read a written statement, prompting Revels to nudge him verbally to “step off the resume presentation.” He did, barely, and prompted the fewest questions from a clearly unimpressed bunch.

He was a different person entirely in the more intimate settings of smaller interviews, reclining a little in his chair and speaking at length and candidly (if with a particular penchant for acronyms and opaque industry lingo) about his exigencies: economic development visions must be data-driven, he said, then went on to illustrate his point by outlining his recent research showing that small companies in Flagler are “overrepresented,” and that having just two companies with more than 500 jobs (that’s Palm Coast Data and Florida Hospital Flagler, each of which has about twice that number) is not enough. For starters, his goal would be to triple the number of companies in the 100-employee range. (“A different person comes out when it’s one on one,” Revels would say at the end of the interview.)

Register was clear about what he wasn’t (a web developer, a social media expert, skills someone else would have to fill), and what he couldn’t accomplish absent “complete” buy in from “stakeholders”—meaning the business and political community. No one in the room followed up with the obvious question, given the absence, so far, of that buy-in: what’s Plan B without it, since the county’s council is itself the clearest evidence that the county and Palm Coast have parted ways on economic development. When asked the third-rail question about how he’d define success in coming years, Register said: “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I can guarantee anything.”

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13 Responses for “Jobs Council Interviews 3 Vastly Different Candidates for Top Economic Development Job”

  1. Flagler parent says:

    Seems an obvious choice–pick the one who’s not only done this before, but done it WELL, and actually presented the facts and figures to back it up. She also sounds like the only one who truly came prepared–I hope Helga gets it.

  2. PJ says:

    If they asked the right questions (and who knows) they would may better served to hire the Jersey girl.

    Anyone from that area is used to working in a NY minute. Maybe you may get something done!!

  3. palmcoaster says:

    Given the fact that they will eelct one of the three, I will go with the one from NJ…she may have good connections to entice small NJ-NY small businesses to move here and create jobs…Second choice would be the TNN gentleman Clifton.

  4. Not much of a choice says:

    Shame on the board for selecting these people to interview. The board needs to take their role serious. After the first round of phone interviews it was clear two of these people shouldn’t have been considered further.

    Bruce doesn’t have executive experience and it showed. The man is not ready for prime time. He is probably a great analysis.

    Who is this Chris guy? And why does he think he would be god’s gift to Flagler. This man is extremely arrogant. If his resume was true, why is he looking to come to small county Flagler? Oh yeah he told us. The reason he is looking at this job is because the real estate market “stinks”..

    This man is a hungry commercial realtor looking for a check until the market returns. He would leave as soon as he could. This man is not a good fit for Flagler. He needs to go to a bigger market.

    Helga, out of this group, is the only person to consider. But she doesn’t seem much better than what we have already. Why didn’t Rawls apply? Has the board looked at his resume.

    Helga is a keeper, but I think the board needs to toss out the others and reopen the position. It is pretty sad for a $100,000 a year job Flagler only has one applicant to consider.

    But I do think it is time we try a female at helm.

  5. Are you kidding me? says:

    In my opinion the author of this article should do the following:

    Spend a week walking the streets of Perth Amboy,

    Count the city’s ubiquitous empty store-fronts,

    Interview some the overtaxed home owners who are being victimized by a fast growing number of undocumented citizens, section 8 housing and medicaid recipients.

    Pay a visit to our over-crowded high school which according to New Jersey Magazine ranks #318 out of 322 high schools in the state of New Jersey

    Interview the struggling private doctors whose offices are being slowly driven into bankruptcy by an ever expanding tax-exempt, free-medical-clinic. A government funded cash-cow which is slowly monopolizing health care delivery in this city.

    Then and only then you will realize what a delusional article you have written.

  6. palmcoaster says:

    @ Areyoukiddingme. First of all you forget that the author of this article did not choose any of the original several applicants or any of these three last postulants, the “professionals of this board did” so you are “aiming to the wrong sacrificial lamb”. As we are given no choice on these picks by these dunces, we just have at least the right to comment what will be the less harmful of the given choices.
    Regarding the walking around Perth Amboy I advise you to walk around Palm Coast and see the same empty stores fronts and shutting down businesses.
    Maybe your “alleged undocumented” figures come out of the fact that Perth Amboy Mayors and 2 Councilmen last names are Diaz a woman and 2 Gonzalez?:
    The Perth Amboy Schools have a total of 10,092 students with 789 teachers at a ratio of 12.8 kids per teacher as per data shown next: Yes majority of those students are Hispanics, but lets do not forget that Puerto Ricans speak the language and come in droves to the mainline Northeast specially NY-NJ area for a better life “but they are legal born in USA island territory and Americans, wether many like it or not”. One of them was illegaly deported to Mexico over a year ago.The illegal immigrant population in NJ is about only 6%. Some of those hard working illegal’s have been in NJ since 1985 or before simply because just for being Hispanics and poor on arrival, will never be given the chance of a USA visa if they would have applied. Those visas are reserved for USA funded refugees only.
    Instead we are forced all the time to sustain indefinitely, millions of refugees with all expenses paid brought in for political or religious reasons that even become gangs or never recovering from the cultural shock after being brought here on our pockets free ride, end up killing us in droves like in Virginia Tech and other places:
    Regarding your mention of the struggling private doctors in Perth Amboy…this is the very reason why I think the Elga woman of the 3 choices they gave us, should be hired…so she can show these doctors the advantages of moving to Flagler and have their practices in paradise, as doctors are always on demand here and will create local jobs.
    Maybe now you realize that this article does not fall into “your delusional description?”

  7. Frank Zedar says:

    It always puzzles me… Someone has a strong opinion about something… and chooses to remain “anonymous?”

  8. Frank Zedar says:

    Regarding this whole issue, you may enjoy the last three posts of my Blog:

    1. From Perth Amboy to Flagler – A New Beginning
    2. Economic Revival Afoot for 2012?
    3. Flagler Economic Development Dilemma

  9. palmcoaster says:

    Sorry Frank ..but is a choice and for very valid reasons… by now. If you don’t like to read someone’s strong opinion about what you call “something” and I would call instead “real concerning facts taking place”, you can always refrain from doing so. I honestly applaud your involvement in these issues here as input from all, always and for sure helps. I notice that maybe you get approval from cities and county to utilize “our logos” in your web site? Not that I am against at all, but requires a very difficult approval denied to others by cities and county, even if they want to pay for it, as I witness myself. I would be denied that privilege in my business even if I would attempt to use those logos. Bias or selective treatment here?. Same situation with City of Palm Coast, when in tax payers paid printed newsletters and other pamphlets they advertise “the graphic design home based business” that actually outsource its work out of the county as told and proven. Maybe city gets all those brochure designed, free/pro bono or in exchange for the free advertisement in our tax payers paid media? If not, double fault from our city here, as I understand they have a policy (then violated) in place to give preference to suppliers for job contracts, “that occupy commercial space”. Some of these reasons are why many of our commercial space is vacant, insurance on those now vacant former operating businesses, is not sold, utilities are not consumed and do not generate revenue and other services provided (cleaning, pest spraying, a/c services etc. etc.) no longer required…needles to mention the ones laid off. Frank can you see in my last lines and understand why our ED is not going anywhere because our officials, speak from both ends of their mouths? Hope from your position in this council you won’t become one of them. Hope Helga can really break-in/tame/master the real county powers that be galloping free and stomping our empty range of bankrupted businesses and jobless indicators, that keep us stagnant where we are….if commission hires her.

  10. Are you kidding mr says:

    Palmcoaster said,,,,,,,,, “Maybe now you realize that this article does not fall into “your delusional description?”

    Well! Pardon me sir but I assure you the following quote from the article, “now rejuvenated enough to be the playground of Staten Island residents across the waterway” is totally misleading. Perth Amboy has totally deteriorated throughout the past ten years. Since you like “links” and I don’t have the time to explain, Please help yourself to some informative links.

    Moran: Perth Amboy superintendent takes on fight over teacher tenure |

    USDOJ: US Attorney’s Office – District of New Jersey

    Perth Amboy pays nearly $8M to Chevron Corp. to settle property tax appeals |

    As ex-Perth Amboy mayor awaits sentencing, city is left with $85M tab for public safety complex |

    ‘Pimp’ video stings Planned Parenthood – Washington Times

    Dental Practice Management

    Driver for former Perth Amboy mayor admits to rigging public lottery for federally subsidized housing |

  11. palmcoaster says:

    @` Areyoukiddingme..First and most keep in mind that none of us here elected these candidates to head of ED but the council did. Second, the School Fraud published by the link you enclosed was a failure or illegal association of the school officials not the Economic Development Officials of the City of Perth Amboy. Also the other fraudulent actions were committed by an ex mayor and assistants and not the current Mayor Ms. Wilda Diaz.
    I am glad that in Perth Amboy this investigations are requested from the Fed, FBI or whoever outside authority. Unfortunately seldom they are called in Florida as when brought in Brevard and other counties.,0,1496116.story
    When it comes Fl Mayors, some here are not exempted. I knew this guy & always thought was a real crook.
    When it comes to the need to bring the FBI to Flagler County to investigate many issues regarding miss appropriations of tax payers funds, one of the latest ones why County Manager Coffey with approval from the Commission decided to pay Ginn over 2.5 million for an unbuildable swamp appraised by County Appraiser Gardner at 500,000. Further more while Ginn stick it to us his requested super oversized hangar at the airport with a 2,000.000 tab to be paid up by Ginn’s rental of 200,000/year x 10 years. Ginn walked off the deal, left us holding the $200,000/year bag and Coffey convinced commission to settle for $37,000….? Those funds are taxpayers funds collected for purchases for land preservation not for fraudulent purchases of overpriced swamps. The difference between Pert Amboy and Flagler is that over there they have the guts to report fraud to the Feds and FBI, here they keep mute. Regarding the last 3 items mentioned in your reply …looks like you don’t read much our local news often. If you are into digging fraud you may want to sharpen your searching tools, about our local yet unpunished ones.

    • Are you kidding mr says:

      “looks like you don’t read much our local news often. If you are into digging fraud you may want to sharpen your searching tools, about our local yet unpunished ones.

      You are absolutely correct when you say, “looks like you don’t read much our local news often,” However, I don’t ever recall claiming any expertise on the subject– Hence, your petulant rebuttal reads utterly pugnacious. Specially the sardonic closing statement,

      “you may want to sharpen your searching tools.” I don’t have a dog in this race but you guys at Fagler do–the best handicappers look at past performances from other tracks. Take that for what is worth.

      “adios muchachito,

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