As president of Gates McVey, a Naples-based development company, Todd Gates has overseen countless commercial projects and watched his staff more than double in just two years.
Last year, the company moved into a new $45 million headquarters to support its growth.
Gates hopes to bring the same kind of success to the Economic Development Council of Collier County as the new chairman. Last year was an active year for economic development, and he wants to build on those accomplishments through his volunteer leadership.
In 2005, the EDC helped keep and create 647 jobs in Collier County. That’s the highest number it’s had since 1997, when the EDC formed a private-public economic development partnership with the county.
The county’s investment in the partnership last year was nearly $600,000, which is matched by the EDC.
Through the partnership, there were 168 jobs created and 479 retained last year. The average wage for those jobs was $45,278, the highest in the EDC’s 30-year history and $12,544 more than Collier County’s average. But the challenges were many as companies faced permitting delays, a critical shortage of affordable housing and skyrocketing construction costs.
Looking ahead, Gates remains optimistic.
The EDC’s mission is to attract higher-skilled, better-paying jobs to Collier County. And it’s a mission Gates has long believed in.
“I honestly believe there is no better time than now in the entire history of the EDC where the mission statement of the EDC is so important,” he said. “I think we’re all pretty fortunate to live here, and I think we’re blessed in this wonderful community. I think the main reason we’re all here is the quality of life. But we’ve got to remember that the quality of life means that we have a good job.”
He said it’s critical to diversify the local economy, which is now dependent on tourism, construction and agriculture.
“We all know how fragile all three of those industries can be,” Gates said.
His goals as chairman are many. They include expanding the runway at the Florida Tradeport, Immokalee’s regional airport, and eliminating the permitting problems that have prevented the construction of new commercial buildings around the airport.
Naples-based Skytruck Co. LLC, a cargo airplane distributor that planned to locate at the Immokalee airport, has threatened to leave Collier County because of federal environmental permitting delays and other problems.
“It’s up in the air right now,” Gates said. “We very much want Skytruck there. We hope the permitting delays will end very soon to accommodate Skytruck’s needs very soon.”
At risk are 30 jobs paying $35,000 a year.
Skytruck wouldn’t be the first failure at the Immokalee airport.
At one time, Skytruck lived in the shadow of Miami-based jet maker Safire Aircraft Co. Safire had plans to bring a minijet to market and it was considering putting an assembly plant at Immokalee airport after being courted by the EDC. Safire’s plant had the potential to create 1,000 jobs to Skytruck’s 30. But Safire closed after running into money troubles last year.
If Skytruck moves to the Immokalee airport, Gates is sure others will follow.
“Obviously the first company that locates there is the most important,” he said. “Once they locate there, the permits are in place to accept other companies. Unfortunately, Skytruck was the first one and got bogged down with all the permitting.”
Gates wants to see Immokalee airport’s runway expand so it can better compete with other airports in other communities.
“Our runway is fairly short at the Florida Tradeport,” Gates said. “If we expand it 30 to 50 percent, we would be much more competitive in the international trade business. Larger businesses could land and take off from there.”
He wants to see the EDC kick up its airport marketing a notch during his one-year term. With Miami International Airport reaching its capacity, Immokalee could take over some of the international trade it can’t handle, he said.
Last year, the EDC began an extensive study designed to identify companies that might be interested in relocating to the airport.
This year, Gates will lobby to preserve and expand county incentives for qualifying companies in Collier County. And he’ll continue to focus on making economic development efforts more regional.
“The region has more to offer than individual counties themselves,” Gates said.
He wants the EDC to continue working closely with The Regional Business Alliance of Southwest Florida Inc., a nonprofit alliance formed in 2004 to help lure corporate headquarters to the region to create more high-paying jobs. Retired and active chief executives and senior business executives banded together to create the group, which offers venture capital to help start new companies in Southwest Florida.
“They’re doing a lot of good things,” Gates said. “I want to support them in any way we can.”
Gates will closely monitor local permitting for businesses expanding and relocating in Collier County.
Last month, Collier County commissioners approved a plan that’s expected to dramatically improve the county’s fast-track permitting program, offered as an incentive to lure high-paying companies here and to encourage the ones that are already here to expand.
The new and improved fast-track program should shorten permitting times and make it clearer to companies how long permitting will take. A new county planner will be hired to oversee and manage all fast-track applications.
Gates is optimistic the changes will make a difference. In the past, fast-track permitting hasn’t been all that fast.
“We need to put the fast back in fast track,” he said. “We need to make it where people that are expanding locally, looking to bring in businesses locally, are not intimidated by the permitting process. We need them to feel welcome and to be treated as if they are wanted in the community through the permitting process.”
He said the EDC will continue to meet with other groups to find a solution to the shortage of affordable housing in Collier County, which is making it tough for companies to recruit new employees.
“If we have nowhere for employees to live, then all the other things we’ve done are for naught,” Gates said.
For seven years, Gates has been closely involved with the EDC. Four years ago, he was invited to participate on the board. His term as chairman began in November, days after Hurricane Wilma hit Collier County.
Tammie Nemecek, the EDC’s president, said Gates wasted no time in assuming his new role.
“He was very supportive with our efforts in the disaster recovery,” she said. “He’s always willing to step in and get things done.”
Tom Conrecode, who recently finished his term as EDC’s chairman, was just as active. He met nearly all of his goals last year and made other strides he didn’t foresee when he took over.
He said he considers the biggest success of the year having the second highest number of jobs created or retained since 1997. He gives the credit to the leaders that came before him. He carried their momentum forward.
During his term, Conrecode worked to make economic development initiatives more regional. The EDC hosted a delegation from China that was looking for economic development opportunities.
Last year, the EDC helped secure nearly $3 million in county, state and federal grants and incentives for local businesses.
Among the companies that the EDC worked with last year are Kraft Construction Co., a commercial builder that’s putting up a new headquarters along Pine Ridge Road, and Mobile Internet Technologies, an Internet-based automobile sales and financing company that will soon build its new headquarters in North Naples.
Last year, the EDC also helped obtain county incentives for the Training and Manufacturing Institute, or TMI for short. The founders of the institute plan to build a 30,000-square-foot building in Immokalee that will serve as the hub for on-the-job training in a variety of fields, including construction trades.
Nemecek said Conrecode provided good direction to her during his term. She said he was always available when she needed advice.
“He was an inspiration to me,” Nemecek said. “That’s for sure.”
While Conrecode was chairman, the EDC underwent a reorganization. Nemecek became president after serving as the EDC’s executive director for about two years.
The executive director position was eliminated, creating two new directorships — one to focus on the EDC’s operations and the other to oversee the economic development department. The changes were outlined in a five-year strategic plan developed in 2003 to take the EDC to the next level.
Last year, the EDC continued to add new members. Over the past five years, it’s seen a 48 percent jump in its membership. Involvement is at its highest level, Conrecode said.
The EDC continues expanding its services. Recently it formed a partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero to provide a certified business analyst that will work with small businesses looking to expand in Collier County.
Earlier this year, the EDC also formed a partnership with the university to research employment and demographic trends. The region’s other economic development councils are involved, as well as the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.
This year, the EDC will hire a coordinator to work with employers on workforce concerns, such as job training and labor recruitment. The coordinator will help businesses obtain job training grants and to spread the word about job openings.
Later this month, the EDC will celebrate its 30th anniversary. But Nemecek said economic development efforts are still in their infancy in Collier County.
At times, she wishes she had a crystal ball.
“When I look at economic development and what we’re doing for the community, I’m looking at a 20-year plan,” Nemecek said. “We change chairmen of the EDC each year, and we go before county commissioners on an annual basis. But everything we do is a long-term project, and I think we have to constantly keep that in perspective.”