Brent Batten: New path for economic development starts with old idea

BRENT BATTEN

When it comes to economic development, Collier County has hit the Reset button.

A vote Thursday by the board of directors of the Collier County Economic Development Council to close its doors means the county will look for a new path to economic diversity.

Any new path has to have a starting point and here’s one possibility.

Back in January, a handful of community leaders formed a nonprofit group called Collier Gets to Work.

Among the principals were former state Rep. Dudley Goodlette and Alan Horton, the former editor of the Naples Daily News and later senior vice president of newspapers for E. W. Scripps, its parent company based in Cincinnati.

The group didn’t put a lot of thought into the name — its founders admit they just lifted it from Gov. Rick Scott’s successful “Let’s Get to Work,” campaign slogan — but they did think through the area’s prospects for economic development.

At the time, the proposal to use taxpayers’ money to build a genetic research facility for Maine-based Jackson Laboratory was in trouble.

The point of Collier Gets to Work was this: Whether Jackson Lab comes to Collier County or not, the fields of medicine and biotechnology still represent the community’s best avenues for creating clean, high-tech, high-wage jobs.

Their reasoning was as follows: The area already has a decent infrastructure in place to accommodate the medical field. There are multiple hospitals. Nursing and health technology programs exist at a number of schools on the vocational, college and university levels and a leader in the medical device industry, Arthrex, is already located here.

Health care will always be in demand, and as advances in medical science come along, new industries are bound to spring up around them, the thinking was.

Collier Gets to Work went so far as to hire a Tallahassee public relations firm to craft a message about the economic potential of medical development.

But as the Jackson Lab proposal went down in flames, Collier County leaders began questioning their whole approach to economic development.

The EDC board itself commissioned a study that was released last week. It recommended a number of things, including phasing out the present EDC.

Amid that turmoil, Collier Gets to Work stood down. “It still exists,” Horton said Friday of Collier Gets to Work. “We haven’t met for a long time. We’ve been waiting for the EDC to go through whatever it’s going through.”

Nor is the group likely to resurface as a major player. “I don’t see any reason for Collier Gets to Work to Stumble into the middle of this. The ball is in the county’s court,” Horton said.

But that doesn’t mean the original idea isn’t valid still.

The medical infrastructure is still in place, schools still produce graduates in health-related fields and Arthrex is still a leader in medical device manufacturing.

Together they can create a synergy that will drive the economy of the future. For example, Arthrex’s need for machinists could be filled by retraining unemployed Southwest Florida workers with an aptitude for that kind of work, Horton suggested.

A key will be accountability. The KMK report commissioners by the EDC suggests the county hire a high-level economic development head who will report to the county manager. That’s in contrast to the EDC, which accepted county money but didn’t report to county commissioners or the county manager.

“They (county leaders) shouldn’t have political cover on economic development,” Horton said.

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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