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

Stephen Douglas

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Wednesday's September 7 Economic Development Advisory Board meeting almost went off without a hitch for FSU's Institute of Gov't. Ex. Dir. Jeff Hendry, one of the masterminds behind the $54mil Broadband Stimulus (NFBA-FRBA) debacle. Mr. Hendry, also the Executive Director of the North Florida Economic Development Partnership (NFEDP) was looking for Columbia County taxpayers to pony up $10,000 for an agreement with FSU's Institute of Government. No one at the Wednesday meeting could explain the deliverables. Rather than showing up with an explanation, Mr. Hendry was MIA. Board member Stephen Douglas took exception.

Economic Development Director Glenn Hunter kicked off the discussion regarding the FSU Institute of Government (IOG) Letter of Agreement. "Each of you have before you a letter for a professional services contract with the Institute of Government. On the first page you will see the scope of work that we hope to accomplish. We will be working with IOG to assist us with technical assistance and grant writing for the upcoming year. The cost of the contract is $10,000. I'll entertain any questions."

Mr. Hunter had reviewed the contract with the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) members before the meeting.

Florida Power & Light's Jeff Simmons said, "I wholeheartedly agree workin' with the North Florida Economic Development Partnership (NFEDP). I know their expertise and knowledge."

Your reporter pointed out that the contract was not with the NFEDP, but with FSU.

Mr. Simmons said the people that advise the NFEDP are the same folks at FSU.

Columbia County contributes $6,900 a year to the NFEDP. The only NFEDP document in possession of the County is a letter asking for the $6,900. Attached to the letter are 4 pages of purported Hendry team accomplishments. None of them specifically mentions Columbia County. The County has nothing showing any deliverables for its $6,900.

Board member Glenn Owens asked, "So this is for them to help us in grant writing should that opportunity come up in the next year? Is that it in a nutshell?"

Mr. Hunter answered, "We're already foreseeing grant opportunities for them to assist us with and we're wanting to take their services further than just our normal membership in the NFEDP. The purpose is for additional grants and additional technical assistance."

Mr. Hunter did not mention any grants or technical assistance received from the NFEDP. The $10,000 additional request from Mr. Hendry is in addition to the $6,900 the County already pays.

Columbia County's Economic Development Expert Weighs In

City Manager Wendell Johnson told the EDAB, "There's three regions in the state that's similar to what we're talking about with this organization... It used to be called Rural Areas of Economic Concern. Now it's called Rural Areas of Economic Opportunity.

Almost accurate. These multi-county areas were known as Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern (RACEC) and were characterized by persistent poverty, the lowest educational achievement, low household income, depressed economic activity, high underemployment, lack of business competitiveness, and difficulty in attracting new businesses and jobs.

While the Small County Coalition of Florida was against the name change, the Florida League of Cities spearheaded the RACEC name change to Rural Areas of Opportunity (RAO), areas with the highest poverty levels in the state with median household incomes well below state and federal averages.

City Manager Johnson said, "It's not a bad thing (the agreement). $10,000 is not a lot of money to try and see what happens. I know Jeff Hendry is the Executive Director of the NFEDP. A lot of people don't like him."

Chairman Nash Weighed in

Chairman Nash asked, "We want to do it for a year and see what the results are before we extend it?"

Mr. Hunter replied, "That's correct."

Stephen Douglas: "I've got some concerns?"

Apparently not satisfied with his answers behind closed doors, Board member Stephen Douglas brought his concerns into the public's eye.

Mr. Douglas said, "We're already paying for membership. We're a member of the NFEDP... We're going to pay them another $10,000 to do what? I don't understand... To serve as a liaison and conduit of business intelligence? Do we need that extra support? That's what we're here for. I don't think that we're being used to our full potential."

Enterprise Florida received a $120,000 grant from Duke Energy for a new economic development initiative to increase the state's competitiveness. The Strategic Sites Inventory (SSI) program will help address the states need to identify more quality sites (100) for business expansion within its Florida service area.

Mr. Hunter responded, "We're asking for more services and more consulting and more technical information and we are ready to engage in that with them."

Mr. Douglas added, "I don't understand how the Strategic Site Initiative (SSI) got thrown in here. This is supposed to allow us to go after grants that we need." I don't understand how SSI is in this agreement."

Mr. Hunter couldn't come up with an answer. He finally said it could be removed, adding that in his discussions with Hendry he said, "Let's throw that in the contract."

Workforce Problems
The problem only Mr. Douglas wants to address

Mr. Douglas followed up, "We still have to get on the ground and do the work. If we have a problem with our workforce, we still have to identify what those problems are and what we have to do to fix those problems. That's up to us to do. Paying $10,000 is not fixing our workforce problem."

What are the measurables?

Your reporter inquired, "A little while ago, Mr. Nash said we could maybe try it for a year looking at different measurables to see if it works out. What is it that you will use to see if it works out, because without the $10,000, Mr. Johnson just got $650,000 at the airport. You didn't have to pay $10,000 for that. What other measurable do you have in mind, Mr. Nash?"

Chairman Nash answered, "I get it."

City Manager Johnson added, "We will not know until we try."

Your reporter followed up, "My question is, 'What's the measurables that you mentioned?' You don't know?"

Chairman Nash: "No."

The EDAB recommended approval by the County 5.

Stephen Douglas held his ground and voted, "Nay."

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