NAPLES — A new year may bring a new vision for economic development in Collier County.
The Collier County Economic Development Council announced plans in September to close its doors, around the time a strategic plan was released. Collier County government and business leaders have been working on plans to reinvigorate the organization.
Those plans should become clearer this spring. Some of the anticipated changes come from a report that Cincinnati-based KMK Consulting released in September, which recommended that county leaders:
Hire an economic development director
Pursue a partnership organization with Lee and other counties in a regional effort
Recruit retired CEOs in the area to form a new development task force with the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce.
As the new year begins, county leaders have said those goals are somewhat closer to reality.
County Manager Leo Ochs proposed a government structure overseen by a new "Office of Business and Economic Development" at a September workshop between EDC leaders and Collier County commissioners.
The office would have two full-time employees — an executive director and a project manager, according to the proposal, and would work with an annual budget of $251,800. The office also would have a part-time impact fee manager.
Ochs said he hopes commissioners at their January meeting will authorize the hiring full time of a project manager, Beth Sterchi, who worked for the EDC part-time. The project manager would be responsible for taking business referrals and helping develop a plan to continue attracting new businesses to the county.
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Ochs said he will hold off on the request for an executive director until a comparative counties report is completed. The report is being worked on by professor Aysegul Timur, Hodges University's Business and Public Administration program chairwoman, and her graduate students. They are compiling information from several counties that are succeeding despite the economic downturn.
"That will tell us what the best approach is, whether it is a public-private partnership or just private initiatives or vice versa," he said.
Ochs said the comparative counties data should be completed in January and he hopes to bring a plan to commissioners by late February or early March.
Mike Reagen, president and CEO of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, said the comparative study of 12 counties is almost complete. He said a questionnaire will be sent out in the next 30 to 60 days to governments and businesses in the study, asking them to assess how they work together.
Reagen said he hopes to have a forum or two in which representatives of some business and governmental agencies would come to speak. He said those forums could take place in late March or early April.
Reagen said, as far as he knows, a development task force with retired CEOs hasn't been formed.
As far as the Chamber's involvement, Reagen said the organization is working to establish a partnership for Collier County's future economic development. He said the Chamber has reached out to SCORE, Florida Gulf Coast University's Small Business Development Center, the Naples Area Board of Realtors, the Collier Building Industry Association and others, and he hopes to have an announcement about the partnership in early February.
"The partnership would focus on existing businesses. Most economic development begins at home and, in a recession, we need to do everything we can to promote our local businesses," he said.
Reagen said the partnership, which hopes to raise $120,000 and already has about $50,000 in committed pledges, would run the programs for existing businesses once run by the EDC.
Collier County Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said whatever happens with the EDC in the new year, it is going to take a partnership of the public and private sectors.
"I do not believe anything the county does will be effective without the partnership of the private sector," he said.
Coyle said he would like the county to consider what has happened with the county's Community Redevelopment Agencies in Immokalee and the Bayshore area as a possible place to draw economic development ideas.
"They have been successful in the last four or five years with the creation of new businesses and new jobs," he said. "What they have done is nothing short of amazing."
But whether his fellow commissioners will concur is up in the air.
Commissioner Georgia Hiller has been vocal about her concern for the finances of the Bayshore CRA in particular. Hiller has said she is concerned that the CRA wouldn't be able to pay back the $10.5 million it currently owes on a loan, which was used to purchase property within the CRA for development.
David Jackson, executive director of the Bayshore CRA, said while the CRA might not be able to repay the full loan by Sept. 1, 2014, which is when the principal is due, he believes the organization will be able to refinance.
Staff from the redevelopment agencies is scheduled to meet with commissioners Jan. 17 to lay out plans and goals for 2012.