Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County Sports Tourism Expansion - Funded With Public Funds - A Game for Good Ole' Boy Insiders

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday's "Kickoff" meeting for the County funded Flat Field Sports Complex Feasibility Study had all the ingredients of what makes Columbia County tick: high priced consultants (the only respondents for this study), a meeting timed so inconveniently that three County commissioners and the public couldn't attend, and a team of County insiders.

After legendary commissioner Ronald Williams made the usual introductions, he announced [as spoken], "At this time we have a sports facility, sports advisory and facility management team. We going to turn that over to them for review."

Dan Morton of Sports Facilities Advisory (SFA) introduced himself. He is defined in both SFA's proposal and contract as a "Project Resource." He seemed to be the project manager.

Dan Morton (standing) talks about open discussion. Community engagement was not mentioned during the meeting. Richard Stiftinger is seated.

He told the group of government officials, staff, and members of the TDC, "We want to hear from you. We are here to learn..."

While this meeting called for community engagement, the meeting was scheduled so there was no community present.

SFA's Richard Stiftinger introduced himself as the project coordinator.

Mr. Morton continued [abridged], "We want an open line of communication. Today is the beginning of our engagement. We do about 120 studies a year, mostly in the United States... We look through the lens of management.... We know if we lie on the front end, we die on the back end. That's not how we do our business. We don't have any smudges on our record. We don't anticipate getting any."

He continued, "We've worked in over 2000 communities, done $10 billion in planned venues... We are focused on creating access to sports assets as well as how they generate economic development. The goal is to bring nonlocal people into market who wouldn't be in the community, but for events at the facility."

Huddle Up Group's Jon Schmieder introduced himself. He is known to Columbia County for the strategic sports plan that his group produced. He said, "We have a handoff now... It's great to be back and try and help with this pass off to these guys... I was giving them the history on our plan. I brought them up to speed on every issue that exists here. ... The diamond sports are strong. The flat field sports are lacking..."

Jon Schmieder is an expert in the sports tourism industry. Community engagement was not a paramount item in the Huddle Up study: a chronic issue with Columbia County, not Mr. Schmieder.

Columbia County and SFA: No Other Proposals

Mr. Schmieder continued, "We said, 'hey, go find,' and we didn't recommend SFA specifically, but 'go find a company that's expert at that,' because there are four or five of them out there and let them do the work and tell you that you need the flat fields and let them do the feasibility and funding model for it. That's kinda where we ended and where they started and Paula (Paula Vann, TDC Director) called and said, 'Hey, we want to pursue this,' and you put an RFP out and you all picked us."

This is not exactly the case. There was only one response to the RFP and it is not clear, nor has it been explained why SFA needs Huddle Up in this project. However, Mr. Schmieder opined, referring to SFA, "These guys are the best in the country."

Mr. Morton said the preliminary market analysis was complete and they were at the "beginning stages of our feasibility analysis for a new outdoor multipurpose flat field facility for soccer, lacrosse, football, rugby, etc.

The Vann Team

The Vann Team is composed of TDC Director Paula Vann, TDC Sports Marketing Director Alden Rosner, Parks Maintenance Superintendant Clint Pitman, and Lacey Boatright, staff support for County Manager Ben Scott and the County 5.

Mr. Morton explained that they talk and will talk with Ms. Vann and her team about the facility in detail: "for the specific vision in detail; for the specific facility accents; how they could operate; how they could be funded," etc., adding, "And then we have some stakeholder engagements with different groups in the area."

Those stakeholder groups were not identified.

Community Engagement

While the SFA contract and proposal call for Community Engagement, the slide produced by SFA left it out.

Even though community engagement is highlighted in various projects on the SFA website and is addressed in the SFA proposal and contract, the term community engagement was not mentioned once during the hour long meeting.

Mr. Morton concluded, "We'll do an economic analysis. Finally, an onsite presentation once we wrap everything up. We'll be back and forth with Paula and the team a lot as we finish the analysis."

Mr. Morton asked for thoughts on the project.

Identifying Locations

TDC member and hotel mogul Nick Patel asked, "Are you identifying locations?"

Don:  Yes.... We will make a recommendation of where we think the right location is."

Econ Dev Director Glenn Hunter asked what size the facility should be.

Mr. Morton answered, "We are looking at a minimum of eight full-size fields. Our market analysis will tell us whether it should be 12 fields - 16."

Your reporter asked, "Do you know how many acres this is going to be?

Mr. Morton answered, "We don't yet."

Your reporter followed up, "Do you know where - how you're getting the fields - the property to look at? How those are being funneled to you?"

Mr. Morton began, "Yes (nervous laugh). The team is making it available to us -what is the possibility from a parcel perspective."

Your reporter, "When you say the team, that is?"

Mr. Morton:  "Paula and her staff."

Your reporter:  "So they're getting you the parcels?"

Mr. Morton:  "At this point, yes?"

No Sunshine Here "No discussion in open meetings"

Commissioner Williams mentions "no discussion in open meetings." Another chronic problem in Columbia County. TDC Director Vann looks on.

Commissioner Williams warned about the sunshine:  "And it's very important when you guys start lookin' at areas that have been suggested to you, that you kinda keep it. We don't discuss it in the sunshine. That means we don't discuss it in an open meeting. That's between you and staff. And that way we all know that someone think we're lookin' at their property the price here (unintelligible)."

Mr. Morton:  "Absolutely. Yup."

Commissioner Williams followed up, "Once you gettin' ready to pull the trigger on it, they - you can get a better deal on it."

Mr. Morton answered, "That will be our process as we deal with Paula and the team."

Commissioner Murphy did a lot of listening during the meeting.

County Chairman Tim Murphy asked, "What are some of the things you are looking for when you search for a location?"

Mr. Morton answered, "Obviously cost; access; what infrastructure is there; or are there utilities on the site, is it hilly; is it flat. We weigh all those things and make a recommendation."

Commissioner Williams: "Columbia County sits in a unique area... I-10, U.S. 90... It almost put a automatic area in which you need to look."

Mr. Morton said, "We need to make sure that you are not driving a half hour to get to hotels."

Ellisville and "the whole County"

Ellisville is about 12 minutes from the I-75, U.S. 90 interchange. It is undergoing major economic investment, both private and by the state.

Your reporter addressed Mr. Morton, "The new facility if away from here could be a whole economic development driver for another whole area -- that's another possibility? Are you guys going to explore that?"

Commissioner Williams added, "That could be one of our options, to help an area with economic development."

Jon Schmieder added, "We should explore the whole County."

Mr. Morton told the group, "The time line for the first draft is 6 to 8 weeks from today. About four months to finish."


TDC member and hotel mogul Nick Patel (back toward camera) waited until after the meeting to share his views with the consultants.                              ++ enlarge

Stakeholder and community engagement vary by community. In a county like Alachua, there would be public meetings and a grand effort to make sure the community was involved and had input in this type of project.

Some consultants make every effort to make sure that the community is engaged as much as possible. As one consultant told the Observer, speaking under the condition of anonymity, "It's a matter of my integrity."

Columbia County taxpayers are paying for the study and the new sports complex if the County moves forward.

There are many possibilities. The public needs to make sure it is heard. The County 5 can make sure they have that chance.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

Posted on Dec. 16, 2018, a reader from Tampa wrote:

This shows what a bunch of slick, untrustworthy people they are. I would be livid if that were my tax money being spent and a commissioner is saying no public discussion. They are supposed to work for the community, represent their interests. This gives a clear picture that they can’t be trusted. Williams used the name of the law in his warning, “We don't discuss it in the sunshine”.  So he knows exactly what he’s doing.

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

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