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Suddenly, 2 groups racing to help businesses

By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

After months of having virtually no one actively engaged in furthering economic development efforts in Hernando County, soon there might be two.

The Hernando County Commission, along with a diverse assortment of business people, decided last year to create the Office of Economic Development, which will be staffed by county employees whose first priority will be to retain and expand existing businesses.

The office's secondary responsibility will be to recruit new business. That mission was defined after a review process that included exhaustive discussions about a $76,000 study by an academic consultant.

Since then, the county has encountered difficulty hiring a manager to oversee the program. One of the most promising candidates recently turned down the job because he was put off by reports about strained relations between the commissioners and County Administrator Paul McIntosh.

But last week, McIntosh and Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson told the Times they no longer want to wait for a full-time director to be hired. Each advocated hiring someone on an interim basis, and each suggested that person would be local.

No one named names, but you can bet they have some possibilities in mind. McIntosh also is expediting the hiring of a secretary to work for that as-yet unidentified interim director.

As it turns out, McIntosh and Robinson are not the only ones impatient about having a passive economic development effort.

A few members of the Economic Development Commission, a nonprofit group the county fired last spring after a failed four-year attempt to do the job through a public-private partnership, told the Times Friday they plan to launch their own initiative.

It is odd that after months of coasting along with no viable program in place, the county and the EDC decided almost simultaneously that last week was the time to take action.

Even more odd is the fact that the EDC, which no longer receives any public money, apparently is re-inventing itself with the same goal the county has identified: assisting existing businesses.

Part of that reasoning is obvious. Even though they won't admit it in Washington or Tallahassee, the country is in a recession. Hernando County is not escaping the effects of the national economic climate. Several businesses have shut their doors recently, with hundreds losing jobs in an already tight employment market.

It makes good sense to focus economic development efforts on preventing such closings, and helping existing businesses through hard times that probably will worsen before they improve.

But from a logistical perspective, one has to wonder how the county economic development office and the private EDC will avoid redundancy. At best, it may confuse those who might avail themselves of their services. At worst, it may create a competitive atmosphere, which is counterproductive for groups that allegedly have the same goal.

Commissioner Robinson said Friday she thinks the groups' work will not overlap. "We have our plan in place, and it has been in place some time. The county will take the lead, and if the private sector wants to help, that's great."

Len Tria, who is acting as point man for the comeback EDC, said he intends to work cooperatively with the county and to be a "strong advocate" for the business community.

On Tuesday, County Administrator McIntosh will ask the commission to create its own advocacy group by appointing a broad-based business advisory council. His proposal calls for about 25 people to serve on the council, which will be subject to the requirements of the state open meetings laws. The list of representative groups on McIntosh's proposed advisory council looks an awful lot like the EDC's old membership roster.

Is this an example of the adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same?" Or is the county's economic development future about to brighten?

Honestly, I don't know the answers to those questions, and if members of either group tell you they do, don't believe it; this is still a trial-and-error approach.

But for reasons that are not yet apparent, there are just more people trying now.

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