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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Florida/North Florida

The North FL Economic Development Partnership
Is it Getting Involved in Agribusiness?

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Almost three weeks ago the North Florida Economic Development Partnership (NFEDP) met for its quarterly meeting. Funded by mostly public money, the NFEDP does not announce its meetings on its web site, where it claims its principles include integrity and professionalism. It is funded mainly by state and federal grants and a per capita charge from the municipalities that belong. The majority of its membership works for the government. Industrial/manufacturing site promotion/economic development in the North Central Florida region are the main purposes of the NFEDP. 

Background

The NFEDP was originally incorporated in the offices of the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council in 2006. Columbia County's Economic Development Director, Jim Poole, was the president and registered agent. In November 2009, the NFEDP moved to FSU's Institute of Government (IOG). Jeff Hendry became the registered agent. In 2010 he was listed with the state as the NFEDP Director. The main purpose of the NFEDP, at that time, appears to have been a way to funnel federal and state money into FSU and to those that were well connected in Tallahassee.

The NFEDP's specific purpose was to "promote economic development."

In 2010, with the help of Mr. Hendry, the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA) was formed to try and cash in on some of the $4 billion of Obama stimulus money.

The NFBA was awarded $30,000,000.

NFBA
stories are here

"When the NFBA needed a contractor to conduct 'public outreach' and marketing, NFEDP/Jeff Hendry was awarded (without either a description of work or a competitive bid) a contract for $ 120,000.00 a year." The subsequent "year that contract was raised to $140,000 [$144k] a year without even the benefit of a performance audit." (NFBA board member Chris Thurow to Heather Encinosa of NGN, the law firm then representing the NFBA)

That money was funneled directly into FSU.

Mr. Hendry's outreach program failed; $30,000,000 went up in smoke and to the well-connected. This does not count the $24,000,000 squandered by the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA) of which Mr. Hendry was also the director of outreach.

The Feds investigated no one. No one blinked an eye.

November 2016 NFEDP Gathering
Out of the Blue: Agribusiness


Out of the blue, Victor Leotta (standing) mentioned agribusiness.

There was much discussion at the November 17 meeting regarding site development from the NFEDP's site consultant, Victor Leotta of Leotta-Evers Consulting out of Baton Rouge. It is not clear why the NFEDP could not find a Florida company to do the same site consulting work.

About half way through the meeting during a PowerPoint presentation, Mr. Leotta was looking at a bunch of columns and said, "The column that's missing in all of this is agribusiness. Jeff (Hendry) has had some direct conversations with Commissioner Putnam (Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture) and his staff about their involvement to help maybe get on board. Don't forget - we're talking to them about possible funding -- to get an agribusiness component."

No one asked Mr. Leotta about the new "agribusiness component" of the NFEDP.

As the meeting began to wind down your reporter asked Mr. Hendry about his agribusiness remarks: "It was mentioned during the presentation that you were getting involved with the state with agribusiness. If you could expand on that a little bit. North Central Florida is family farms. How do you anticipate the state getting involved in agribusiness, which puts small family farms out of business?"

The online business dictionary defines agribusiness:
A business that earns most or all of its revenues from agriculture. An agribusiness tends to be a large-scale business operation and may dabble in farming, processing and manufacturing and/or the packaging and distribution of products.

There was silence.

Your reporter followed up, "He (Mr. Leotta) mentioned something about talking to the state and Adam Putman about agribusiness."


The NFEDP is about major "industrial and commercial projects."

Mr. Hendry answered, "I don't want to get in the weeds too much, but at the end of the day our rural communities are in large measure agriculturally based. Let's face it, a lot of agribusiness - agriland, and so there are opportunities potentially for bio fuels and those kinds of businesses that might want to locate on large parcels of land. Solar farms are another thing that had popped up. Those are just examples, but we can talk off-line about that."

An unidentified member of the NFEDP added, "Agricultural land owners in large part are the ones that are driving the desire to take a small portion of the footprint of the property owned and generate other business opportunities to create jobs and even help generate revenue for them without giving up the large majority of what their landholdings are on the farm, because like everybody else, they're looking to expand their ability to make a living. The idea of putting them out of business is a misnomer. A lot of the landowners themselves -- the farmers are asking."

Epilogue

The NFEDP has barely spoken a word about the demise of $54,000,000 in squandered rural economic development broadband stimulus funds. Funds clearly necessary for economic development. After the Feds shut down the NFBA and then let it start back up again, much of what went on was shrouded in secrecy, something that was not objected to by Mr. Hendry.

The NFEDP refuses to address the issues surrounding a living wage.

With its track record of making its mistakes disappear, if it is going to get into the business of "agribusiness" it needs to be transparent.

Updated Dec. 9, 2016: grammar and typos

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