Economic development candidate wants to be bridge between private sector, government

Michael Chen

Michael Chen

Michael Chen likes groundwork. In fact, sometimes it can be very fun.

While working for Japan Development and Construction Co., Chen was part of a group that help build more than 65 percent of the golf courses in Japan. As a result, he hit the links on a regular basis.

"I know how to swing a golf club," he said.

That's why Chen is excited to be considered for Collier County's new economic development director, a job that will require him to start from scratch. He is one of three finalists to interview for the job today.

"I am very impressed with the way the community has chosen to invest in itself," he said of his interest in the community.

Most recently, he has worked for his own consulting business, Urban Development & Mobility Solutions, which he started after he left his job as development services manager for the city of Tampa in 2010.

"I wanted to work with government to identify the costs and benefits and the investment risks of these projects," he said. "It is my job to work with the government and the private sector to help these projects become a reality."

Bonnie Wise, the chief financial administrator for Hillsborough County, sought Chen's company out for work with the county to assist in the underwriting, evaluation and structuring for several development deals.

"It was a good way to use a small business, a local minority firm with the skill set we were seeking," she said.

Wise called Chen "very responsible, detailed and creative." She said he worked on detailed analysis of everything from tourist tax revenue and ad valorem increases to the consideration of development costs and the payroll of construction jobs.

"He's very thorough," she said.

His new venture also has him working for clients up and down the west coast of Florida, including with several firms that have relationships with Collier County.

Chen, 62, likes to focus on the financial side of things. That's why he thinks he will have an easy transition to a job in the budget-conscious public sector, while working to attracting companies that would like to see some return on their investment in the community.

He understands there is a lot of groundwork to be done in Collier. He said it will be important to understand the thoughts and concerns of County Manager Leo Ochs, who will oversee the department. But, he said it will also be important to collaborate with existing economic partners, community organizations and neighborhood organizations to provide for the community.

"A lot of people don't understand what economic development organizations do for them," he said. "They don't see the association with quality of life."

Chen said economic development is a boon for existing local businesses because it allows them to expand their goods and services. He said his role is to bridge the gaps between what the community wants and what it has.

"You look for the outcomes that everyone most wants and identify priorities. One thing we are all facing in this economy is a shortage of resources," he said.

When asked about a project he was most proud of, Chen said it depends on the definition. He said the Scottsdale Princess Hotel, which he worked on when he worked for Japan Development & Construction Co., was the largest project at $140 million.

But he also speaks with equal passion about the construction of the World Trade Center in Miami, which was the first project to open with the Miami Metrorail System; and the development of the Embassy Suites Resort on Singer Island, which led to the development of a Smart Cat reading program that gave awards to students, including stays at the hotel for their family, for improvement in reading.

"It was one of the most touching awards ceremonies I had ever seen," he said. "There were flocks of parents who were bringing their kids up to have their photos taken with me. It was very touching."

Chen is a longtime Florida resident. He lived in Miami for 25 years and has lived in Tampa for the last seven. He is married and enjoys cooking.

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