There may be 14 million job seekers around the country and a 14 percent unemployment rate in Flagler County. But Flagler’s newly created jobs council, which had to extend the application deadline to get its own eight seats filled in October, is now having trouble getting qualified candidates for the council’s top executive job to make it through to the live interview round in early January.
Some 63 people originally applied for the executive job, salaried at more or less $100,000. The council short-listed eight of those for phone interviews last week. Two candidates dropped out before getting dialed, one of them supposedly because of “negative” press on economic development in the county. A candidate was substituted in for one of the two. The council narrowed down the list to five, who are to be invited for 48 hours in Flagler the first week of January, including in-person interviews with the council. On Wednesday, the six of the nine council members present at their latest meeting learned that two more candidates had dropped out—Peter Tokar III and Robert Barnes.
“In some of the discussions that Joe has had with them,” Barbara Revels, who chairs the jobs council, said, referring to Joe Mayer, the county’s human resources director, “there seems to be a recurring theme that from what candidates have read about Flagler County is that, I guess they’re slightly worried that our expectations are rather high, so that we need to think about the fact that it is going to take us a while to get up and running, but I guess a new hire is worried that they would be expected to come in here and produce 200 jobs in the first 12 months that they were here and they wouldn’t want to start off that way.”
In a proposal to the Flagler County Commission based on the council’s existing structure and budget, Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey had projected “some success expected” from the effort’s annual $410,000 budget, defining that success as 600 jobs in the first three years, or 200 jobs a year. Coffey was projecting 2,000 new jobs in three years only if the effort was backed by an annual budget of $1.3 million.
The Achilles’ heel of government-led economic development efforts is measurable job creation, especially when compared to the tax dollars at work, supporting the economic development bureaucracy—in this case, the $410,000 a year, half of which would support salaries. The council has yet to set out a clear strategic vision—what kind of jobs it’s seeking, by which time it’s proposing to produce them—but there’s no dispute that its existence is predicated overwhelmingly on job creation, and relatively soon.
It may appear ironic that candidates applying for an economic development job would be reluctant to take on a job where their primary expectation is to create jobs, as opposed to, say, flashy reports about job prospects and surveys of what’s already known. On the other hand, several of the candidates interviewed by phone last week made issue of the other recurring theme of those interviews when they asked pointed questions about the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of Enterprise Flagler, the previous council responsible for economic development, and the difference between Enterprise Flagler (a decade-old public-private venture with few accomplishments) and this new, entirely county government-led jobs council.
Revels and other county officials have been striving to project a positive, unified front on economic development. But the last 20 months or so, going back to a badly planned and politically unsupported effort by Enterprise Flagler to levy a property tax for economic development in 2010, have been defined more bv dysfunction, rivalries between Palm Coast and the county, and only small-bore achievements in terms of concrete economic development initiatives than clear-eyed unity. Lip service aside, the county’s jobs council, in fact, is operating separately from Palm Coast’s own economic development infrastructure, with a separate budget, a separate administration and vastly separate expectations. Candidates for the council’s executive job, in sum, have reasons to be leery of stepping into the fray, particularly at a time when other forces beyond their control—Flagler County’s broader economic outlook—are barely showing signs of improvement.
“And then there may be others that we were going to interview that say hey, I’m here for the task, I’m ready,” Revels said. “I know we’re ready. So we’ll just keep pressing on.”
“If they’re not willing to try for that 200 jobs in the first 12 months, they’re probably not the ones we want anyway,” Joseph Marotti, one of the council members, said.
“We’ll certainly keep thinking that way,” Revels said.
For those last-three standing candidates—Helga van Eckert, Bruce Register and Chris Clifton—the schedule goes this way, assuming they’ll stick around for it: the county will put them up at the Hammock Beach Resort on January 4. The next day, they’ll be bused to the county government building in Bunnell for a 9 a.m. meeting with the jobs council. Each of the three will make a five to seven-minute presentation as to why he or she wants the job. All the proceedings are, of course, open to the public, and will presumably be televised.
The council will then break up into three groups of three members each for lengthier face-to-face interviews, which are also open to the public, and will be carried out on the third floor of the government building, in the financial services conference room, the engineering conference room, and the administration conference room. “Each group,” Mayer said, “will have a series of questions that they will ask the candidates, one is general management questions, group two is prospecting and lead generation, and the third group is economic development type background questions.”
Meanwhile the administration will conduct fingerprinting background checks on the candidates. Later in the day the candidates will be given a tour of the Emergency Operations Center in an attempt to impress them. “I believe that’s important because they’re coming from an area not from around here, not all of them are familiar with our area,” Mayer said, “and we want to show them that we do have state of the art facilities, and we are in fact the leader in some areas, especially emergency management. They come and take a tour of this EOC, they’ll be impressed.”
From 6 to 8 p.m., the candidates will take part in a meet-and-greet at the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce at 20 Airport Road. The following day, they’ll have a tour of the county for two to three hours, while the jobs council itself reconvenes to decide whether to hire one of the three or to re-open the search for an executive.