Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Cnty 5 Spends $3 Mil Plus on Sports & Recreation Improvements, Then Decides to Have a Plan

Gary Alexander, a principal with Huddle Up Consultants, gives his presentation to 5 folks at a barely advertised DEO mandatory public meeting.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Friday morning, February 24, the County's TDC Director held the second of what was billed as "Public Meeting – Workshop". The subject matter was "Sports Tourism Workshop with Huddle Up Group." Contrary to the published opinions of the Florida Attorney General, there was no agenda. Contrary to the intent and spirit of the County Charter, there was no supporting information. It turned out Columbia County had applied for and obtained a grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to hire a consultant to develop a Sports Tourism Strategic Plan.


In January of 2013, driven by Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash, the County 5 and the Tourist Development Council (TDC) agreed to spend $1.75 Mil on the Southside Sports Complex in Lake City.

The County 5 did not end its spending on sports at Southside. It had also subsidized the School District sports facilities to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By August of 2014, the Southside price tag had grown to over $3 Mil.

The County 5 had no plan and there was no talk to get one.

Finally, in April 2016, the County applied for a $35,000 DEO Technical Assistance Grant to create a Sports Tourism Strategic Plan "to guide our tourism and economic development efforts."

On July 1, 2016, DEO awarded Columbia County the grant to develop its Sports Tourism Strategic Plan.

On October 6, 2016, the County 5 approved the grant.

On January 1, 2017, six months after DEO approved the grant, an agreement was drawn up between Huddle Up Group and Columbia County.

The County has already applied to DEO for two extensions because of delays in its procurement process.

The County website gave up barely any information about the state mandated workshops.

On February 23 & 24, 2017, two workshops were held regarding the grant. The Grant Agreement called for agendas to be produced for the workshops. Nobody tells Columbia County what to do. It didn't produce agendas.

The County did nothing to promote the workshops to the general public, the funders of the Columbia County sports program. The nondescript  blurb on the County web site and lack of any agenda or supporting material is what drove your reporter to be at the 8 am meeting, planned for a time when no members of the working public could attend.

The Workshop

At At 8:05 am the second required workshop kicked off. Representing Huddle Up Group was the CEO and founder of the company, Jon Schmieder. With him was Gary Alexander, a principal of the company.

Also in attendance were a handful of people. Not counting your reporter and members of the County staff, 5 people showed up.

Gary Alexander (left) and Jon Schmieder address the five people that attended the 8 am workshop.

Mr. Alexander kicked off the meeting. He explained that Sports tourism is a $38 billion industry and the grass roots portion of that is over $9 billion. He said, "Everybody is asking the question, how do I get a bigger bite of that pie?"

He said Huddle UP was in Lake City to do an evaluation of sports tourism. "We look at your facilities; we will get your organizational structure; we look at your funding; we would get your potential funding. We are trying to get a picture of where you are. We'll come back in April and make some recommendations on where we think you can go."

Location – Location – Location

Mr. Alexander said what everyone has known for decades, "Your location is very advantageous at the intersection of interstates 10 and 75: people are coming in this direction. It's easy to get to."

Mr. Alexander had already interviewed members of the community. The interview list was, according to TDC Director Paula Vann, a collaborative effort between herself, Assistant County Manager Scott Ward, and Director of Grounds, Clint Pittman.

Focus Areas & Human Capital

Jon Schmieder explained that there were four focus areas on which Huddle Up concentrated: research and data review; venue and events feedback; identify opportunities for the future; recommend a long range plan.

He said, "We spend a lot of time on human capital. You can build the coolest venues in the whole world, if you don't have the right people to program it and the right people to do maintenance on it and to advantage it you're going to be lost."

Kelly Lowrey: the Man Who Knew Too Much

Before he was forced out by Columbia County's infamous good ole' boys, former football star and Sports Director Kelly Lowrey put Columbia County on the national sports tournament map.

Mr. Schmieder said that the major players [promoters] on the tournament circuit know that Lake City is strong in baseball and softball.

Mr. Schmieder explained, "Your local competitors aren't just Jacksonville and Gainesville. This whole state has been at this a very long time."

Nothing to do but eat and run amuck

Florida Gateway College President Larry Barrett asked if the final report would indicate anything about the lack of ancillary things to do once folk come to Lake City.

Mr. Schmieder replied, "It came up (during the discussions) about lack of things to do, outside of competition, so I think we'll definitely cite that."

Mr. Alexander added, "We heard that from the participants, as well as from the hotel operators. 'The kids play games and then in between games they go to the hotels and run amuck.'"

Your reporter asked, "How important is that? That's been something that's been chronic in Lake City forever. You come here and now you can eat, but there is not much else you can do. You'll expand on that in the report?"

Mr. Schmieder answered, "Your competitors don't have that issue for the most part. So it's an issue for you."

He continued, "I was telling Paula (TDC Director Vann) on the way over, my wife's a foodie. Going out to dinner last night was kind of challenging. You have a bunch of new restaurants, but all of them are chains."

Mr. Schmieder mentioned downtown Lake City's Marion Café, an independent restaurant. "We're looking for places like that. We don't want to go to Longhorn every time."

Mr. Alexander added, "The rights holders [people that own and run the events] are making their buying decisions. They're looking at all of those things. They're looking at the field. They're looking at the organization. They're looking at the housing. They're looking at ancillary things to do. They're looking at the entire group."

Mr. Schmieder added, "We will impress that as well."

Lake City Community Tennis Assoc on the Move: Will the County 5 Double Fault?

Tennis Anyone?

Your reporter asked, "There's been a lot of talk about tennis coming to Lake City. Do you also address the issues that have potential to bring in people to the area? Will tennis be something that we might see in the report?"

Mr. Schmieder answered, "We'll talk about it for sure."

Challenges – A One Horse Town?
"A Job Corps Not Capable of Supporting Industry"

Mr. Schmieder continued, "The other challenge is unless your venues are that much better than everybody else's -- unless they are so much better and your community offering is so much better, the chances are that if it's a national event the teams are going to fly in and drive by four other complexes to get to yours. The rights holder is gonna' go, 'Why would I land in Jacksonville and drive over there if Jacksonville has one that's twice as good?' I'm being generic, but that's what we are trying to combat. I'm not referring to any particular sport."

Florida Gateway College's (FGC) Mike McKee asked, "What are your initial reactions to the community?"

FGC Pres. Barrett: "I want all these technical - vocational programs to get people real jobs, but I also don't like that we're not teaching them any communication skills; we're not teaching them any writing skills, and that comes back..." Columbia Cnty Economic Development "We don't have a workforce strategy"

Mr. Schmieder answered, "I didn't realize that there wasn't really an industry here other than tourism. The fact that you don't have industry; the university is smaller; tourism is really the biggest driver. Your biggest hotelier tells us that -- he's connected in the economic development world – 'My biggest concern is being able to staff my hotels.' Whether it's your students, high school students, or whatever, you've got to train these people. Our job corps is really not capable of supporting industry."

Mr. Schmieder continued, "The I-10, I-75 thing is really – that's what we are. I didn't get that until I got here yesterday."

Former School administrator and tennis expert Mike Null asked, "I'm curious, how is it that you are going to make our report unique to Columbia County?"

Mr. Schmieder answered, "That's a good question. We'll give you some stuff that works elsewhere, but we will definitely customize it. It sounds like there is a soccer thing -- a tennis thing -- an indoor venue thing. We will definitely go through those in-depth. We do have some opinions on those, but I don't know if we know enough about what we should put in there yet. But we can keep talking to more people."

Mr. Alexander added, "Finances dictate a great deal in various communities. Funding will dictate a great deal. We'll give you a laundry list: you have a dollar, we think you ought to do this; if you have two dollars, we think you ought to do this; we will make those recommendations as well."

Your reporter asked, "You guys are independent?"

Mr. Schmieder answered, "Completely."

Your reporter followed up, "You know, with consultants a lot of times -- you pay the consultant -- we know what that thing is. You are independent? You are going to come up with your own report?"

Mr. Schmieder didn't hesitate, "Completely."


The two workshops were mandatory. The nonexistent agenda material was also mandatory. Columbia County planned both meetings so that working families could not attend, become informed and provide input.

The Columbia County 5: the legend continues.

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