By the time the latest countywide economic development summit—the fifth since January—disbanded after 2 p.m. Friday, less than half the original 65 participants were still around the table. About a third hadn’t showed up at all. The rest trickled out, little by little, as the day wore on, despite copious doses of self-congratulations and pom-pom-less cheerleading.
The principal questions that have dogged the summits and were their original motive—who’s going to lead the county’s economic development organization (if one is needed), what is it going to look like, who’s going to pay, what are they going to pay—remain largely unanswered. But the group may be getting closer to some answers, at least to questions re-calibrated to be more easily answered. That is, questions that skirt essential matters of politics and finance.
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On Friday, the group agreed to hand over the responsibility of figuring out who will lead the economic development effort, and what it should look like, to Enterprise Flagler, the county’s public-private partnership. Two of Enterprise Flagler’s leading members—the banker Garry Lubi and County Commissioner Barbara Revels—conceded that the organization isn’t well perceived beyond its walls (“dysfunction,” is how John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer publisher and marketing executive, summed it up). Luby and Revels disputed that perception, though not 24 hours earlier the dysfunction was on display during an Enterprise Flagler meeting.
When County Administrator Craig Coffey suggested that Enterprise Flagler lead the way to recommending who and what the leadership would be, pending the larger group’s approval, the assembly agreed—somewhat by default: an attempt to get SCORE, the business counseling organization, to lead the effort failed when SCORE’s executives balked, saying the county’s officials, private and public, should take ownership of their own initiative. Keep in mind: Enterprise Flagler won’t be deciding anything, merely recommending it.
Meanwhile, the five focus groups that have been meeting and developing five general economic development “strategies” and tactics, few of which would resonate with the general public, will continue to do so, honing what they’ve done so far, particularly in terms of cost and one of the day’s catch phrases: “return on investment.” The five groups’ bottom line cost attached to those strategies–a cost of more than $7 million over three years, a number conveniently in line with what a half-cent sales tax would generate–wasn’t discussed directly on Friday, as the assembly continued a pattern of evading the hardest questions. Rather, each group summed up its findings and projections of what eventually totaled a few thousand jobs to be created in the next three years, if their plan was adopted.
The speculative numbers were not put to any analytical test on Friday, but presumably will be in more committee meetings over the next 30 days. Those results would be submitted to yet another countywide summit in June, what will be the sixth, as will Enterprise Flagler’s key recommendations.
The meeting was held, as before, at the agricultural extension service, near the county fairgrounds. The meeting room emptied quickly as soon as it was over—indeed, it began emptying before Upton declared the meeting over, though he culled a few jazzed up sum-ups from a few participants as an optimistic send-off. “The meeting that we’ve had here today helped to unify our focus,” David Ottati, Florida Hospital Flagler’s CEO and the president of Enterprise Flagler, said.
“It seems like we have the same amorphous mass that we had when we started three months ago,” Art Barr, the developer and a guarded skeptic of the summit process, had said earlier in the day. By the time the meeting disbanded, he’d changed his mind, saying the focus on Enterprise Flagler was at least some recognition that the organization that ought to be in charge should take charge, if only to clarify the matter of leadership. (Barr’s quote was incorrectly transcribed in an earlier version of this story, with the word “mess” instead of “mass.” See Barr’s comment below.)
“Enterprise Flagler needs to be restructured,” County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson said in his sum-up, “but that may delay all of the things that we’ve done in the last two months.” So the restructuring will take a back seat to whatever refining of the summitry’s focus groups entails.
Optimism may be premature: the political groundwork of any of the efforts put forward is virtually non-existent, which means that much of the work risks being wasted as wish lists rather than as initiatives that have the backing of the various governments.
At the heart of the political paralysis is the matter of paying for it all. There’s little interest in new taxes, and outright opposition to new taxes for economic development from Palm Coast and Flagler Beach. That didn’t change on Friday, and isn’t likely to change as Palm Coast faces an election this year (the mayor’s and two council seats are up).
Absent a new source of money, the five summits’ talk since January—which have now added up to close to 30 hours of talk, not counting committee meetings, and with more to come—may end up being just that.
Alice Baker, Flagler Beach mayor
John Feind, chairman of the Flagler Beach City Commission
Steve Settle, Flagler Beach city commissioner
Jenny Crain-Brady, Bunnell city commissioner
John Rogers, Bunnell city commissioner
Elbert Tucker, Bunnell city commissioner
Armando Martinez, Bunnell city manager
Frank Meeker, Palm Coast city council member
Jim Netherton, Marineland mayor
Mike Chiumento, representing the Chamber of Commerce
Karen Radcliff, Flagler County Association of Realtors
Robbie Richmond, Flagler Homebuilders Association
David Lusby, Enterprise Flagler
Colleen Conklin, Flagler County School Board
Sue Dickinson, Flagler County School Board
John Fischer, Flagler County School Board
Mike Judd, Flagler County school district administration
James Ardell, Beverly Beach
Gerry Gersbach, Beverly Beach commissioner
Frank Gromling, Beverly Beach commissioner
Lance Berry, Beverly Beach
Ed Hess, Beverly Beach
Nancy Walsh, Beverly Beach
Jim Ulsamer, Flagler County representative
Donald O’Brien had originally been listed. He clarified: “Please be advised that I was never part of the appointed members of the summit. I did attend the initial meeting on behalf of the Chamber. I did this as a favor to Lea Stokes who was on vacation at the time.”