Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Columbia County News

Another Economic Development Master Plan For Columbia County: Paid For By The Taxpayers

Posted June 04, 2014  06:00 am

Beth Kirkland tries to bring Columbia County to the "Next Level."

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday, May 29, 2014, the Columbia County Economic Development Department met for an emergency economic development work shop to gather information in order to be in compliance with the terms of a $40,000 economic development grant from the state. Columbia County is the pilot community for what Enterprise Florida called the "Next Level" Community Competitiveness Grant. Dragging its feet, the County now has its back up against the wall. The County's taxpayers had to pony up $17,250 to pay a consultant to finish the grant. This story really began in 2009 – in secret.

The Homeless 5 meet at Emergency Management Hdq.

On June 15, 2009, the perennially homeless Columbia County Commission, (County 5 or The 5) met in an unannounced workshop at 9am in the County's Emergency Operations Center, rather than its usual meeting place, the School Board Administrative Complex. The topic of conversation, according to the minutes, was a "Planning/Strategy" meeting in which Fairfield Index's Don Upton "assisted the Board."

Ms. Kirkland explains SWOT analysis to the group.

The County's financial records are silent regarding the cost to pay Fairfield Index's Upton, although a check was drawn on the County's Administrative Account for $6,500 payable to Fairfield Index a month later. The Observer has been unable to find any item in The 5's agendas during that time authorizing the $6,500 expenditure.

On July 16, 2009, The 5 approved a contract, sight unseen, with Fairfield Index. The contract was not on the evening's agenda. It appears from County records that the contract was to be for a study of the County's interchanges, but it morphed into the development of a strategic plan. The eventual cost was $76,500.

The plan was being discussed at various unpublicized (read secret) meetings by a group called the Rudder Team. This was a handpicked team that met like the Star Chamber. The qualifications for this team were never known by The 5.  In September of 2009, Commissioner DuPree remarked that not only did he not know about the Rudder Team, but that an IDA member didn't know about it either.

At one Industrial Development Authority (IDA) meeting during the development of the strategic plan, the IDA was advised that customer service was important and that it is good to call back the customer.

The $76,500 Strategic (Rudder) Plan, paid for with County Tax dollars, fell into oblivion after it was presented to The 5 in February/March 2010. It was now called "The Community Development Plan."

The next strategic plan: three years later

In July of 2013 it was announced by the County's new Economic Development Director, Jessie Quillen, that the County was awarded a grant to develop an economic development strategic plan.

Ex. Dir. Quillen wrote to the County:

I am pleased to share with you that the Economic Development Department has been selected by Enterprise Florida as the first community in Florida to pilot their new "Next Level" Community Competiveness program. Enterprise Florida through the Department of Economic Opportunity has awarded us a grant for this program in the amount of $40,000. Fortunately, this grant is being awarded without the requirement of a match.

When Ex. Dir. Quillen wanted to reach out to the community to establish a community stakeholder group to work on the Strategic Plan, Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) member, Jeff Simmons balked and wanted the group to be composed of the former Rudder Team members. Mr. Simmons got his way.

FPL's Jeff Simmons (left) was part of the original Rudder Team. Glenn Hunter looks on during last Thursday's emergency "Next Level" work shop.

The Grant was to be done in house. Ex. Dir. Quillen, a certified economic development professional led the process. The agreement with the state required the grant deliverables be completed by May 15, 2014.

In February of 2014, Ex. Dir. Quillen resigned from his post with the County. The County dragged its feet looking for a replacement. The grant languished.

On April 2, 2014, the EDAB met. The Committee Chairman, a long time member of The 5, Ronald Williams, brought up the grant at the beginning of the meeting. "We’re workin' on it. We’re gonna make sure that that get done. I talked to Dale [Williams, County Manager] about that. You know we want to do that in house. We might try to get a little help to get that done. We’re a couple months behind," he said.

The EDAB's Administrative Assistant added, "We are a couple of months behind. They are attempting to grant an extension to us through September and we are working with a consultant."

Chairman Williams opined, "We will get that done."

On April 3, The 5 met for its regularly scheduled meeting. There was no mention of the hiring of a consultant to facilitate the grant.

On April 17, The 5 met for its regularly scheduled commission meeting. Buried at the end of the consent agenda was a contract for Beth Kirkland Consulting, effective April 1 through September 30, 2014. None of The 5 mentioned it, but the County was looking for an extension.

On May 2, the County finally hired a Columbia County good ole' boy for the vacant position of Economic Development Director. The new hire was not from the field of economic development and by the time the County got around to actually hiring the former Columbia County school board member, Glenn Hunter, all the other candidates had dropped out.

Chamber of Commerce Ex. Dir. Dennille Decker told the group that Lake City and Columbia County need to get along.

The County, which bills itself as the Gateway to Florida, was in a jam. Grant material was due in two weeks on May 15. The County had dragged its feet since February.

The inexperienced Hunter was hired at $85,000.

The County is paying Ms. Kirkland $17,250 plus expenses to complete the grant deliverables. The state has extended the deadline to June 30. Ms. Kirkland's contract runs through September 30.

In the workshop facilitated by Ms. Kirkland at Gateway Community College last Thursday on May 29, the participants concluded that Columbia County is bisected by two interstates and that the County and the City of Lake City can't get along.


By the time Columbia County finishes this strategic plan, the tax payers of Columbia County will have spent $83,000 on one plan and now Florida is spending $40,000 and the County is kicking in another $17,250 for another. This is not counting the $80,000 recently spent by the County to study retail buying habits and the $100,000 plus squandered on the Boondoggle in the Boondocks in Ellisville.

According to economic development professionals, Columbia County's former Economic Development Director was making headway combating the good ole' boy mentality of The 5. It seems that now Columbia County has turned back the clock. Everyone has Columbia County's number.

The legend of The 5, Florida's quintessential good ole' boy county, lives on. It's back to business as usual.


Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

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


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