Economic evolution: Collier EDC shutting its doors — plans in place for private organization

Tim Cartwright. David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS

Tim Cartwright. David Albers/Staff

Collier County’s Economic Development Council is going out of business.

On Thursday, the council’s board announced it will no longer exist after Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year. The decision follows a firestorm of criticism about the council, a public-private partnership whose long-time mission has been to diversify the local economy.

Critics complained the council was ineffective and costly to the taxpayers.

A new strategic plan for economic development in Collier County, released last week, recommended replacing the council with an entirely new, reinvigorated organization, supported entirely by private businesses. The new group would focus on keeping and growing jobs.

The EDC was established in 1976 as a private group, supported only by private companies.

In 1997, the council evolved into a public-private partnership. It has been receiving $400,000 of taxpayer money a year to support its operations.

The new strategic plan was commissioned by the Economic Development Council, at a cost of $80,000. It was paid for with private money from its members.

“I wouldn’t call it a sad day,” said Tim Cartwright, the EDC’s chairman-elect. “I would call it a new day because with this announcement it’s the first day in the evolution towards a new economic delivery system for Collier County.”

The announcement that the EDC will close its doors comes ahead of a workshop on economic development that’s planned for Friday, Sept. 23 with the EDC’s leaders and Collier County commissioners.

At the upcoming workshop, Jim McGraw, CEO of KMK Consulting Co., which developed the new strategic plan for growing jobs locally and regionally, will outline his recommendations for change.

EDC leaders told county commissioners about their intentions to disband the council. So it came as no surprise to them.

The new strategic 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.

The project could have cost taxpayers more than $260 million.

The EDC’s board agreed that it was in the best interest of the community to put the money the county allocated to the council for next fiscal year toward the new strategic plan.

“We voted as a board unanimously to accept the consultant’s report,” Cartwright said.

The decision to close the EDC was also unanimous among board members, he said.

Others in the community supported the decision.

In his Daily News blog, Dave Trecker, a community leader and a retired senior vice president of Pfizer who lives in Pelican Bay, wrote, “Removal of the EDC would clear the deck and, importantly, clear the air.”

“This is wonderful news,” he added in a phone interview. “It’s providing the basis for a fresh start and that is really what needs to be done here.”

Besides phasing out the EDC, KMK recommends the creation of a new regional economic development group to market the area, with Collier and Lee counties initially coming together in a new partnership. It would cost Collier $350,000 annually.

The consultant also recommends the county hire a full-time economic development director, who would report to the county manager.

KMK suggests the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce get more involved in promoting local business too.

“After months of hand-wringing, following the Jackson Lab debacle, a plausible approach for economic growth has been put forward,” Trecker writes in his blog. “Not a perfect plan and certainly not fleshed out, but a reasonable start. The bones are good.”

He criticized the plan for proposing goals that seem to be unachievable.

The plan identifies 10 bold goals to achieve over the next five years including creating a private capital fund of $500 million to invest in innovative companies. Private dollars would also fund the new private EDC.

“Whether strapped businesses and wealthy individuals would ante up is a big unknown,” Trecker said.

Lois Bolin, a historian and co-founder of Naples Backyard History, said she resigned from the EDC’s board last week because she didn’t support the new strategic plan, which she believes offers nothing new.

“It’s laughable,” Bolin said of the plan. “The plan is embarrassing. That’s all I can say.”

She feels bad for the council’s staff, who will lose their jobs.

“I feel bad that the EDC board did not see the value in promoting all the things that this professional staff did,” Bolin said. “They did everything that was asked of them and more. It wasn’t their fault. It was the board’s.”

The EDC has four full-time employees. It also has two part-time contract employees, an interim director and a financial comptroller, Cartwright said.

“We have been discussing the strategic plan and our future with them for the past week,” he said.

Tammie Nemecek, the EDC’s long-time president and CEO, left the council voluntarily last month after announcing her retirement in March. She has been hired by the University of Central Florida in Orlando to help grow jobs through a statewide economic gardening program.

The EDC will be able to pay its remaining bills with the money left in its budget, Cartwright said.

“Hopefully, we can all come together and unite behind a very well thought out plan and get on with the business of creating jobs,” he said.

Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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