The curious case of economic development

The Citrus County Commission's handling of economic development is a curious case of government not knowing what it wants, but knowing that what it sees it doesn't like.

The county commission did not renew the contract with the Economic Development Council, and commissioners laid out a host of reasons why they didn't want to continue with the EDC as it was then configured.

Two key reasons given by commissioners was that the EDC asked for a budget increase at a time when the county was buttoning down its expenditures government-wide, and that the EDC just didn't communicate enough with commissioners in the course of developing and executing growth plans.

True enough. The EDC's ex-chairman Randy Welker told county commissioners before the EDC's contract expired that "now was the time to invest." He also said that $100,000 for economic development "wasn't that much money for economic development." Futher, the EDC has been viewed by some as being somewhat secretive in its inner workings, and the last meeting before the county commission voted to ax its contract with the EDC, the EDC met in closed session to discuss "personnel issues," which one could have been taken to mean Randy Welker's future.

Commissioner John Thrumston said another gripe he had with the EDC is the size of its board of directors, which is about 20 members. That does seem to be a lot of people, but the EDC is as much private as it is public, and should only be judged on its performance, not the number of people who populate its board. And it is that performance that was an issue with commissioners.

All these arguments have merit, but the county showed poor judgment by blindsiding the EDC concerning its "poor performance" at a time when the contract with the county was nearly expired. The time for the county to have voiced its displeasure with the EDC and worked things out, however, was months before the contract was to expire, not in the 11th hour. To give the EDC a deadline of two weeks to come up with a better way of doing business, or else, shows a lack of political and economic adroitness.

The county had not, as Commissioner Gary Bartell observed, told the EDC what it wanted to see from that body of businessmen. If you don't tell the EDC what the county wants, Bartell argued, they can't live up to expectations. His was a lone voice of reason on a commission bent on diminishing the EDC's role in economic development.

Handing off the EDC's duties to the Chamber of Commerce won't make the county's clouded economic vision suddenly clear. And an EDC-Chamber partnership, it could be argued, muddies the waters and could lead to an uncertain outcome.

Further, the county's decision to give $100,000 to the Small Business Development Council, while politically correct, was likely made possible by not renewing the contract for roughly the same amount with the EDC. Now, the county has funded the SBDC, and the funding for economic development via the forced Chamber-EDC "partnership" could conceivabley run the same amount. So, instead of $100,000, the county might be looking at another $100,000 - for a total of $200,000. How is that saving taxapayers money?

We would posit that the county needs get a vision of what it wants, discuss that among commissioners, set performance standards and then communicate those standards in a contract with whichever entity ends up with economic development. It would then be up to whoever ends up with economic development to implement what the county wants, and will serve as a source document when commissioners get riled up again. Once could well argue that the county could have done that with the EDC with a new contract, rather than putting the Chamber in charge, thus making the EDC less of a player in economic development, and punishing the EDC for its "failure." The commission's solution, it could be argued, could be viewed much as much politically motivated as it is taxpayer-friendly.

Utimately, until the county commission gets its economic act together, it cannot reasonably expect any entitty to "do the job right." No doubt, the commission will pat itself of its back for making its decision to shake up the economic development landscape, but is that praise merited? Only time will tell.