Change is coming for the Collier County Economic Development Council.
Bob Mulhere is in the thick of it, as a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the council. He’s the volunteer chairman until 2012, when his two-year stint is up. That puts him in a lead role for fiscal oversight, policy setting and long-range planning.
The council will soon lose its longtime president and CEO, Tammie Nemecek, who is responsible for day-to-day operations. At the same time, the agency is undergoing an intensive review that’s looking at where it goes from here.
The council appears to be at a crossroads.
With the help of an outside consultant, it’s crafting a new strategic plan, which it will present to Collier commissioners at a workshop in September.
“I’ve been real careful to not influence the process and I’ve been real careful not to assume or project an outcome,” said Mulhere, 56. “All options are on the table.”
Though Nemecek will leave the council in a few days, her replacement has yet to be hired.
“We’re not looking at all,” Mulhere said. “But we will as soon as we have the strategic plan in our hands.”
A management company, Gillroy + Associates in Naples, will take over for Nemecek until she’s replaced. The current CEO salary is $108,000. The CEO is responsible for program delivery, budget management, hiring and staff management.
In her 17 years with the Economic Development Council, Nemecek made a lot of contributions that were favorable to the business community, Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta said. “However, that said, change is always inevitable and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
He hopes for a new direction that’s even better for the future of the county.
The Economic Development Council is a public-private partnership, receiving $400,000 annually from the county to support its job-creating efforts. Those efforts are ongoing, through events and programs and new projects, which have yet to be announced.
If economic development isn’t being delivered in the best way in the county, however, that needs to change, Mulhere said.
“A lot of the work is done by volunteers,” he said. “We all want our work to have value.”
The goal of the new strategic plan is to determine the best method for delivering economic development. The plan is an outgrowth of a controversial attempt to lure Jackson Laboratory, a Maine-based genetic research firm, to the town of Ave Maria in eastern Collier County. The debate was divisive and raised many questions about the role of the Economic Development Council, which championed the effort.
“There’s a lot of questions,” Mulhere said. “Are we primarily going to focus on existing businesses, on helping them grow? Are we going to have any attention on attracting new businesses to the area? Will it be a balanced approach or a weighted approach?”
Ultimately, Jackson Laboratory decided not to come to Collier County, or to Florida.
“From failure comes knowledge,” Mulhere said.
There are differing views on whether the economic development council should continue receiving money from county government to support its programs. The county contributes about a third of the council’s budget, while the other two-thirds comes from private businesses and grants.
It’s reasonable for taxpayers to ask what they’re getting for their money, Mulhere said.
“Some people want to actually see no public dollars toward this effort,” he said. “Some think there are not enough public dollars.”
Commissioner Donna Fiala has repeatedly said she wants more results from the money the county contributes to the council.
“Current doesn’t work,” she said. “Current needs to be improved upon.”
She said the council needs new, innovative ideas, which she hopes will be the outcome of the new strategic plan.
“I feel that we cannot go without a good plan because I think our future is in attracting some worthwhile advanced businesses that can bring a new phase of our economy into place,” Fiala said. “The reason I say that is that for every good business that is drawn to Collier County, it helps us as commissioners to keep the tax rates lower.”
She wants to see the county attract more “good, clean, high-wage jobs.”
She said the new plan should be based on the successes of competing counties.
“We are certainly not going any place this way, except causing a lot of infighting between our taxpayers, our residents,” Fiala said. “Now there are some people that never get into that fight, but there are others who enjoy the thrill of it.”
There have been talks of finding other funding for economic development in the county.
“If we talk about a different funding source, meaning taxpayers in some cases, then we can’t do that unless we go to referendum to see what the people have to say,” Fiala said. “That will be an interesting thing to do. It will turn political. You can bet your boots on that one.”
In 2008, Lee County commissioners agreed to create a $25 million economic development fund, known as the Financial Incentives for Recruiting Strategic Targets (FIRST) Initiative, to help diversify the local economy. The money came from the county’s general reserves.
Five companies participating in the FIRST program have committed to create 1,166 jobs in Lee, with two other projects pending approval. More than 200 of those jobs have been created already.
“I think there is significant awareness in the community that if we are going to compete, we have to have resources to allow us to compete,” Mulhere said.
With the hard economic times, he said, private support for the council dipped this year.
“We’re doing more with less like everybody,” he said. “We have no choice.”
The council is working with a $1.2 million annual budget. In better times, the budget was closer to $1.6 million, Mulhere said.
Some think county staff needs to get more involved in economic development, while others believe it should be a private effort.
In Lee County, the structure is different. The economic development office is a county department. It’s supported by paid county staff and the Horizon Council, a volunteer public-private advisory board whose members represent cities, chambers of commerce, economic development and trade groups, and community, education and business organizations.
“That format works well in Lee County,” Mulhere said. But he’s not sure it will work as well in Collier, a smaller community.
Earlier this year, the Economic Development Council in Collier put out a request for proposals to find a company to create its new strategic plan. KMK Consulting Inc., a business consulting firm out of Cincinnati, was tapped for the job.
Jim McGraw, the president and CEO of KMK, has strong ties to Collier County. He owns a home here and has visited the area for more than 30 years, which has been helpful in the strategic planning process, Mulhere said.
As part of creating the new strategic plan, three community forums were held to get opinions and ideas from the public about how to best go about creating jobs and diversifying the local economy going forward, without compromising the quality of life for residents.
“I think there will always be a role for the EDC, whether we call it the EDC or something else,” Mulhere said.
A new strategic plan could lead to changes in Collier County’s incentive programs for business growth. The hope is that the plan will stop the policy debate about economic development so the community can move forward in creating jobs with wider support, Mulhere said.
“We are certainly in a transitionary period,” he said. “I think it’s natural in that period that there’s a little uncertainty. But that’s OK.”
He’s anxious to get the recommendations of the consultant. They should be finalized by early September.
“It requires a lot of attention right now, a lot of focus,” he said. “But I think the rewards can be substantial for this community.”
He said one of the best programs the council has going is economic gardening, which comes at a low cost and is focused on helping existing businesses grow, rather than on attracting new ones. The gardening program, which has been funded with state dollars, targets small and mid-size companies, offering them technical assistance and CEO forums to help them expand. The council has helped 60 local businesses through the program, which expect to create about 230 jobs over the next year alone.
Mulhere knows the importance of planning for the future. He’s a planning consultant, working for local governments and private landowners. He owns Mulhere & Associates in Naples.
He got involved with the Economic Development Council when he was the director of planning for Collier County. He worked for the county for 12 years, leaving in 2001 to work for RWA, a land development and engineering firm in Naples. In November 2009, he started his own company.
As the council undergoes change, Mulhere is a good choice for chairman, Nemecek said. Having worked in the public and private sectors, he understands them both and he’s been involved with the EDC for “eons,” she said.
“This strategic planning process is the right thing to do at the right time for the EDC, the community and the county,” Nemecek said.
“I hope for the best,” he said. “I really love living here.”
When he got involved with the Economic Development Council more than 15 years ago, Mulhere initially focused on regulatory and permitting issues, working to remove barriers for business growth. At the time, he worked for the county.
In 1997, Mulhere was named Marco Island Citizen of the Year by the Naples Daily News. He lived on Marco for more than 24 years, moving off the island a few years ago.
He has served as president of the YMCA on Marco Island, the United Way of Collier County and the Marco Island Charter Middle School.
He’s part of the team that worked on the new Immokalee Area Master Plan, which maps out the future of the town. He’s a board member of the Regional Planning Council of Southwest Florida.
He grew up just outside of New York City in Rockland County.
Mulhere has four children and two stepchildren, whom he raised. His youngest daughter just graduated from high school.
He is a graduate of St. Michael’s College in Vermont and Florida Gulf Coast University, where he received a master’s degree in public administration in 2001.
These days as the Economic Development Council’s chairman, Mulhere finds himself spending more time volunteering, taking him away from his paying job.
“I’ve got to be careful about that,” he quipped. “There’s definitely a balance. I end up doing a lot more work after hours.”
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.