It’s Flagler County’s rite of spring: government agencies and private-sector partners get together and talk a great deal about how they’re going to turn around the county’s dismal economy, only to founder from poor planning, political splintering, or too much talk and too little action.
Two years ago it was the now-defunct Enterprise Flagler economic development agency’s plan to raise property taxes to build the sort of floor space that would attract a certain type of employer. The plan collapsed before making it to voters’ ballots. Last year, it was that series of county-wide economic development “summits” that gathered politicians from every local government plus private sector leaders in day-long meetings facilitated by a very expensive mediator.
The result was small-bore achievements few people could define outside the little committees that developed them, and a certified split between the county’s two main governments: Palm Coast and Flagler County. They each went their own way. Palm Coast focused on its Business Assistance Center, which helps small businesses start up or stay in business, for about the same amount of money the city contributed to Enterprise Flagler. Flagler County opted to yet again start another economic development council, a few years after ending one, but with a $430,000 annual budget.
That nine-member jobs council, chaired by Barbara Revels, who is also chairing the county commission this year, led to this year’s edition of the spring ritual: a council retreat to the quaint lodge at Princess Place Preserve for a day-long goal-setting session “to lead Flagler County out of the dismal economic landscape of 2006-2012 and into an exciting new era of sustainable growth, creativity, job creation and revenue generation.”
The heady words are those of Helga van Eckert, the county’s new economic development director, hired out of a somewhat similar position in Perth Amboy, N.J., to be Flagler County’s latest wizard. The previous wizard, Greg Rawls, sat to her left at the council’s U-shape table. Rawls led Enterprise Flagler until Palm Coast and the county summarily executed the 10-year-old agency last summer, citing its thin accomplishments. He’s one of van Eckert’s staffers for now, and at least through October.
Aside from two reporters, three county staffers and one county commissioner (Alan Peterson, who’s attended most economic development meetings), the retreat attracted only five other people: Doug Baxter, the president of the county chamber of commerce; Charlie Ericksen, who’s challenging Peterson in the coming Republican primary (they sat at opposite ends of the room), Bob Alex, a regular at these meetings and a former colleague of Eckert’s in New Jersey, and Mick Cuthbertson, a top administrator in Bunnell’s government.
Eckert immediately took control of the meeting when it began at 9, laying out an agenda that by noon was to lay out the council’s mission statement, its vision, and its priorities. Van Eckert appeared to have been leading the council for years, not months, and with a combination of clarity and sense of purpose that these rituals have lacked on previous occasions.
“Knowledgeable, experienced, a good facilitator to channel the views in concise steps,” is how Peterson summed up van Eckert’s style during a break.
By 10 the group had its mission statement: “Facilitate the expansion and diversification of the county’s economic base with targeted businesses that provide sustainable employment opportunities for its residents.” It would hone its vision from this working draft: “Have a quality of life with sustainable, environmentally sound industry that support a solid economic base.”
The group then moved on to the heart of the day’s purpose: what it would actually do in coming months to earn its existence (council members aren’t paid): how to market the county’s agency (a strong, professional-looking internet presence), how to meet with site-selectors (company prospectors looking for business locations), how and when to engage with the community (quarterly town hall meetings are a favorite, though attendance may be a challenge), using the county library as a disseminator of information. The group intends to develop partnerships with the Business Assistance Center and local Realtors and officials, but the meaning of “partnership” is undefined. And of course spreading the message of the council, but with uniformity.
“It’s great that this organization has representation out there by people who understand what’s going on and who really want to make a difference,” van Eckert said. “To me this is where branding comes in, it’s like your elevator speech.”
Mike Gill, a member of the council, had put it sharply in different words earlier: “Having a road map that is crystal-friggin’ clear.”
There were a few other sharpened observations (“I don’t think we need a Palm Coast jingle,” Frank Zedar said, a reference to Palm Coast’s recent “Find Your Florida” video-jingle). But as the morning wore on the discussion again and again meandered from tangent to tangent as the members re-worded much of what’s been said before, especially regarding the type of industries to go after, or (as in the case of Whitney labs in Marineland), what job-makers the council needs to ensure stay in place. There wasn’t much clarity on those industries except for those the county doesn’t want to lose (the Federal Aviation Administration training facility in Palm Coast was another).
Approaching noon, van Eckert had to tell the council that if its objectives weren’t all set by lunch time, that segment of the retreat would be continued at a subsequent meeting of the council. The group agreed: Eckert had booked a speaker for lunch (Michael Breen, a member of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and its “Cornerstone” organization, a regional economic development agency). The afternoon session was to be a more general discussions on “moving forward.”