Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Columbia County News

Columbia County 5 At It Again:  Skimming $80,000 of Cream Out of Taxpayer's Pockets 

Joel Foreman
Lake City/Columbia County Chamber of Commerce President, Joel Foreman at Thursday's meeting.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday night Columbia County's good ole' boy County Commission proved once again that when it comes to skimming the cream out of the taxpayer's pockets the Columbia County 5 takes a back seat to no one. Chamber President Joel Foreman, who was not on the County's agenda, came to ask the County 5 to fund a retail analysis for the Chamber of Commerce by an Alabama firm. Cost to the deep pocketed Columbia County's taxpayers, $80,000. The vast majority of the County's retail business is located within Lake City. No procurement policy was followed. It was not clear from what bucket the money was coming. The $80,000 was not budgeted.

County Manager (CM) Dale Williams introduced the $80,000 proposal to the County 5 with three talking points: (1) the request was brought to us by the Columbia County/Lake City Chamber of Commerce. (2) These agreements are typically run through the Chambers. (3) The intent is to ask the City to pay their prorated share, based on population with the County paying the balance.

County's Economic Development Director: out of the loop

Columbia County pays an Economic Development Director $110,000 dollar a year. In a letter to the County Manager dated July 11, 2013, Economic Development Director Jessie Quillen told CM Williams, "It is my understanding that the Lake City/Columbia County Chamber of Commerce has approached both the Board of County Commissioners and the City of Lake City to obtain funding for an in-depth retail analysis of our trade area."

It is not clear who or how this $80,000 proposal and Retail Strategies, the Alabama consultants got to Columbia County, although FPL's Jeff Simmon's name kept coming up. Mr. Simmons is a member of the County's Economic Development Advisory Board. This issue was not brought up before that board.

Other than during a conversation about 5 months ago, Economic Development Director Quillen has been totally left out of the loop.

The County's agenda stated the request for the approval of the agreement came from Economic Development Department: "Economic Development Department Request – Retail Strategies Consulting Agreement."

The Observer asked Director Quillen, "The agenda says Economic Development Department Request. Did you or the Economic Development Advisory Board request this?"

EDD Quillen, "Absolutely not. The request was from the Chamber."

County Manager Williams: "These agreements are typically run through the Chambers"

Retail Strategies, the Alabama consultants formed in 2011, has been involved in retail studies, which they call success stories in five Alabama cities: Birmingham; Sylacauga; Tuscaloosa; Mountain Brook; and Montgomery. Each success story has been accomplished either with a partnership or direct hire with those cities, not the Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President Joel Foreman: The presentation - more stores enhance the quality of life.

Chamber President Joel Foreman, who is also the attorney for the County's Economic Development Advisory Board, lobbied the County 5 for the $80,000 study from the Alabama firm.

Mr. Foreman told the County 5 that Retail Strategies gathers "more than just demographics."  He said, "What Retail Strategies does is more in-depth demographic data; they do traffic analysis; they talk to people; they develop a mosaic profile."

Earlier in the evening the Observer asked why the Chamber wasn't looking for a Florida firm. Mr. Foreman addressed that issue. Mr. Foreman said there are not a lot of people that do this. Then he said, "Mr. Quillen has told me and I think begrudgingly Wendell Johnson's [Lake City, City Manager] even come around to the idea that you have to develop the quality of life in a community in order to be competitive. One of the things that can be done to develop the quality of life is enhance retail opportunities and give people more choices."

The City of Clearwater: Kept their taxpayer money in Florida

When the City of Clearwater wanted to improve their downtown and enhance the retail experience their Economic Development Department developed a strategic plan and hired a Florida firm to develop that plan. That plan is available online through the city.

The Chamber will control the information: doesn't want to hurt its members.

Mr. Foreman told the County 5 that for $20,000 a year in the last two years of the three year agreement Retail Strategies would do retail conferences and promote Lake City. Mr. Foreman said, "It's sort of like a recruiting trip... They will woo the retailers."

Mr. Foreman said, "The information is very valuable to our membership. We don't want to bring in things that will dilute and hurt our members."

The Chamber members are not being asked to contribute ten cents for this information.

Mr. Foreman told the Observer, "The thought process was to secure funding from the local government partners and run the implementation through the Chamber and have everything under the Chamber's umbrella."

According to Mr. Foreman, City Manager Wendell Johnson suggested the Retail Strategies program be facilitated through the Chamber and that the City pay a prorated share of the expense based on population.

Most of the retail businesses in Columbia County are located in Lake City. The population of Lake City is approximately 18% of the County.

City Manager Wendell Johnson

On Friday, July 19th, City Manager Wendell Johnson, the man in charge of economic development in Lake City was asked, "Last night the County agreed to contribute to the Retail Strategy Study of the retail in Lake City, or mostly in Lake City, without knowing the City's proposed contribution. What is it?  Have you ever had any experience with the Al Company?"

City Manager Johnson replied, "I am familiar with this Study through conversations with Jesse Quillen and Joel Foreman a couple of months ago. The City has not been officially approached with any proposal for participation. I suggest you contact Joel or Jesse."


Last Thursday night the Columbia County 5 approved an $80,000 grant to the Chamber of Commerce. They didn't know where they were going to get the money. They didn't know the City's contribution. They didn't put the contract out for bids, proposals, or qualifications, which is in clear violation of the County's procurement policy. The County 5 made no effort to find a Florida company. The County 5 has given up all control of the process to the Chamber of Commerce, which has not contributed ten cents to a project which is clearly designed to befit its members.

What does the County 5 receive in return? There is an election year right around the corner. Mr. DePratter and Mr. Bailey are up for re-election. $80,000 can buy a lot of support from the business community.

The Columbia County 5 from left to right: Commissioners Ronald Williams; Rusty DePratter; Bucky Nash; Stephen Bailey; Scarlet Frisina

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On July 28, 2013, Kyle Rasmussen of Columbia County wrote:

This is just business as usual in Columbia County. Always seem to be gambling with our tax dollars (without knowing where the money is coming from) towards projects that don't help the citizens as much as it does the businessmen.  It's part of a long tradition of wasteful spending in the county, but to take it out of state? It's a shame.

The whole idea feels sketchy.

I agree that more retail will ultimately increase options for consumers and add new openings for part-time minimum wage jobs, but at what expense? More tax subsidies to get them here while the average full-time retail employee working 2 jobs still needs assistance to feed his or her family? You can bet that it will be the end result.

I guess as long as there's a new place to eat or buy clothes on payday, everyone's happy. Unless you're the one skipping out on the light bill to pay the rent, that is. 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Meeting Calendar
No need to be confused - Find links to agendas and where your participation is welcome.

Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.


Related Articles - 2016 Econ Dev:

Czar Power: County 5 Chair Loads the Bases, Nash Out as Econ Dev Advisory Bd Chief  December 27, 2016

Columbia County 5 Approves $25,000 for Ten Pages of TDC Web Content
 December 16, 2016 

Econ Dev Strategic Plan Committee Meets: More Interested in Massaging the Truth Than Telling It   November 29, 2016

Columbia Cnty Econ Dev Incentives: Home-Grown, Mom-and-Pops, Small Business Need Not Apply November 3, 2016

After Giving Away Millions, Columbia County Economic Development Incentives May be Heading Into Prime Time
October 28, 2016

Taxpayers on the Hook - $10,000 No Strings Attached, Cnty Econ Dev: FSU's Hendry Scores September 9, 2016

Cnty Chair Reverses Vote - Love's Wins - Confusion Part II of Economic Development the County 5 Way August 5, 2016

Cnty Chair Throws Econ Dev Advisory Bd Under Bus Part I of Economic Development the County 5 Way  August 5, 2016

County 5 Poised To Give Away Another $ Million Plus Incentive for 35 Low Paying Jobs August 4, 2016

$1,325,000 Econ Dev Incentive On Tap At County 5 Tonight: Minimum Wage Unclear  July 21, 2016

Econ Dev: Extenuating Circumstance, Late Notice, Lack of Agenda Keeps Public in the Dark  July 19, 2016

Columbia County Workforce Development Summit On Tap for September
June 22, 2016

Cnty 5 to Vote on $869,140 Tax Abatement for Econ Underdevelopment Non-Living Wage Jobs   June 16, 2016

Columbia Cnty Econ Development "We don't have a workforce strategy"
June 1, 2016

Drunk With Power, Nash Board Plays Post Office W/Developer - County Bldg Leased for a Buck  May 21, 2016

Hutton Development Scores: City Council Approves 10yr $440,00 Tax Abatement & $340k in Cash  June 14, 2016

 • Econ Development Bd Recommends $1,650,000 Retail Incentive for Another Shopping Mall  April 7, 2016

 •  Parker Neely – Gateway Crossing Scores Big: On Tap for $255,000 Plus free Association Dues March 5, 2016

 • The 5 Sends Neely–Gateway Crossing $255,0000 EDAB Incentive Back to the Drawing Board  Feb. 22, 2016

  • To Incentivize or Not to Incentivize: EDAB Approves $255k Gateway Crossings Incentive

Feb. 19, 2016

 • Lake City Developer Wants $255,000 From County, City Manager Johnson says, "It's a deal"  January 07, 2016

 • Columbia County Economic Development: Confusion 101 "What's goin' on?"
Nov. 6, 2015

 • Columbia County 5 At It Again: Skimming $80,000 of Cream Out of Taxpayer's Pockets

July 22, 2013