Brent Batten: Hiller's call for new blood makes Coletta's boil

BRENT BATTEN

Some of Southwest Florida’s most successful, respected business and civic leaders stand ready to help Collier County forge a new path forward toward economic development and diversification.

The question is, should they?

Before closing its doors at the end of September, the Economic Development Council of Collier County commissioned a study looking at new ways of achieving the goal of a more vibrant, diverse economy.

At a Sept. 23 meeting between Collier County commissioners and members of the EDC to review the report, Commissioner Georgia Hiller called attention to a list of names comprising an economic development steering committee that helped in the report’s preparation.

On that list were many of Collier County’s movers and shakers _ landowners, bankers, lawyers, business executives and legislators.

She pointed to the county’s controversial and ultimately unsuccessful bid to lure Jackson Laboratory to a site at Ave Maria.

“The concern I have, it’s always the same people. What we really need is new blood. The thinkers that have been thinking about this through today haven’t come up with the solution to the issue.

“The list that I have in the packet reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Jackson Lab. I was actually rolling on the floor laughing. I said, ‘Wow! Same old, same old.’ We need new ideas and new people.”

Asked later if she meant that familiar names such as Fred Pezeshkan, CEO of Kraft Construction and former state legislator Dudley Goodlette should be excluded from the process going forward or if they should be included but with fresh input from new voices, Hiller offered a cryptic one-word response, “Both.”

Hiller’s singling out the steering committee members rubbed at least one of her colleagues the wrong way.

Commissioner Jim Coletta called her remarks an attempt to politicize economic development. “Just a few minutes ago I heard Commissioner Hiller read off an extensive ‘no-fly’ list of people who should not be involved in the new effort that’s going to take place. Very, very disturbing, already trying to set the groundwork for failure. Put together an advisory group that will not be politicized. I don’t give a darn if they’re all from one square mile along the coast. Capable people that make it happen. I would ignore the suggestion of the ‘no-fly’ list.”

For someone who wants to see new ideas and new blood in the economic development effort, Hiller’s first suggestion toward that end was decidedly same old, same old.

Citing weaknesses such as the lack of a port and the lack of a skilled labor force, Hiller said Collier County can’t be Detroit.

But, she said, “We have a very large pool of very hardworking people who are currently unemployed. We also have existing clusters. One of the clusters we have that is extremely successful is the tourism cluster which right now is under capacity to the tune of 40 percent. We’re not getting the maximum return on that existing invested dollar.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the steering committee, or elsewhere for that matter, who wants to turn Collier County into Detroit.

And while everyone would be happy if the hotels and restaurants were busier, employing more people, that wouldn’t produce the high-wage jobs and diverse economic base sought by the EDC and its successor, whatever form it takes.

Oddly enough, as the Jackson Lab deal was falling apart, some of the steering committee members called attention to another existing cluster that does have the potential to grow and provide high-quality jobs _ health care.

Earlier this year Goodlette, former Scripps newspaper executive Alan Horton and others formed a group called Collier Gets to Work. It’s goal was to promote the health sciences as a foundation for future economic expansion, even in the absence of Jackson Lab. With hospitals and nursing schools nearby, some of the infrastructure is already in place, they reasoned.

Hmmm, Health sciences versus more tourism?

New ideas should always be welcome, but maybe we should keep the old blood around a little while longer, just the same.

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

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