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A time line of EDC troubles

By JEFF WEBB

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


It's been almost three years since the single-page photocopy was delivered to my office. Who gave it to me is not important. It's enough to say it was one of several aware and involved business people who shared my misgivings about a group that had just completed its first full year of operation: the Economic Development Commission.

Readers of this page know I have been one of the most vocal critics of the EDC since its inception in early 1996. On behalf of the newspaper's editorial board, I have authored frequent and specific criticisms of the group. In a nutshell, these are our beefs with the EDC members:

They were unnecessarily secret about how they spent the public's money;

They lacked accountability to the County Commission and taxpayers;

They had no clear mission, and;

They broke their promise to increase private funding while weaning themselves from public tax money.

As time went on, we found new reasons to criticize the EDC and its sweetheart deal with the County Commission, including:

violations of the contract with the County Commission;

a do-nothing board of directors that, until recently, had neither the foresight nor the courage to question the judgment they had misplaced in the hands of an arrogant and incommunicative executive director;

lack of oversight by the County Commission of the EDC's escalating budget;

embellished claims by the EDC staff of its accomplishments in luring businesses to the county.

There always have been residents who opposed the concept of the EDC. They called or wrote the newspaper to express suspicions about how the EDC spent its money, or to air their displeasure with the EDC's indifference toward the public. Some simply wanted to share their experiences with similar economic development efforts in other states.

But the resentment toward the EDC ran deeper among some business people who perceived EDC members were using their positions to gain an unfair advantage in the marketplace. These people objected to the County Commission using their taxes to subsidize an elite group of their competitors who were granted an inside track on new businesses that might be coming to the county.

These folks dared not speak publicly against the EDC because they feared retaliation. The EDC had become a political hot potato and was viewed by many as an entrenched group of powerful people who would not take kindly to having their boat rocked.

Which brings me back to the three-year-old photocopy, which is titled The Six Stages of Economic Development. Beneath that headline were six sub-headings, each accompanied by a blank box that was intended to be filled in with the dates when each stage was reached:

1. Enthusiasm.

2. Disillusionment.

3. Panic.

4. Search for the Guilty.

5. Punishment for the Innocent.

6. Praise for the Non-participants.

At the time, I took it as wry commentary about what a fickle endeavor economic development can be, whether it is run by the government, the private sector or a hybrid of the two. I tucked it away in my files and thought little more about it, until it occurred to me recently it might have some merit as a brief history of what transpired the past 41/2 years.

So, I dug out the dog-eared document last week and assigned some dates to it. Perhaps it will be helpful to those who will be putting together the next blueprint for economic development in Hernando County.

The 6 stages of economic development

1. Enthusiasm -- 1996-1997: This was the honeymoon period for the EDC. It began when the County Commission appointed members in 1995 to the Industrial Development Authority, which disbanded and replaced itself with the EDC. This was the era when executive director Rick Michael could do no wrong. He secured a few state grants and constantly reassured the County Commission that he was laying the groundwork for bigger projects, attracting businesses and creating jobs. f,2. Disillusionment -- 1997-1998: More people begin to question why the EDC's budget and staff are increasing. The public and some county officials tune in to the fact that Michael, not his board members, is calling all the shots for the EDC. Efforts to create a fish farming operation at the airport, a clam-raising industry in the Gulf of Mexico off Bayport, and to create trade agreements with Mexico, never materialize. Support on the County Commission weakens as the EDC shuts the public out of a meeting for the first time.

3. Panic -- 1999-early 2000: Amid growing criticism, the EDC counters with two initiatives for the airport. Both fail. One is to create a Spring Hill campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College. The other is to build a prison for Immigration and Naturalization Service prisoners. County commissioners bear the brunt of the public outcry against both unpopular proposals. Michael also angers the county Planning and Zoning Commission when he gives it a public tongue-lashing for denying a mine's request to expand its operation.

4. Search for the guilty -- August-December 2000: The Times publishes a report that contradicts Michael's annual report to the County Commission, in which he takes credit for accomplishments the EDC had little or nothing to do with. A few weeks later, he convenes another closed-door meeting that violates the contract with the county, and a few weeks after that two new commissioners are elected, both of whom oppose the EDC's existence. Realizing the EDC is only one commission vote away from extinction, the once-united EDC board splinters into pro- and anti-Michael factions. A consensus is reached that forcing Michael to resign is the key to the group's survival.

5. Punishment for the innocent -- January 2001-present: I assume under normal circumstances, this is where you'd insert a paragraph alleging that Michael's firing was punishment for the innocent. But that is not the case in this scenario. Perhaps a case could be made he is being punished because the EDC has balked at paying him a severance package he deserves. From where I sit, the only innocents are the taxpayers whose punishment was to shell out about $1.3-million over the past four years to support this dysfunctional group.

6. Praise for the non-participants -- Ongoing: You can't swing a cat without hitting EDC board members or county commissioners who are trying to take credit for putting the EDC out of its misery. On the EDC, only new board members Ginny Brown-Waite and Len Tria deserve praise for asking tough questions and trying to ensure the public gets its money worth. On the County Commission, only Diane Rowden and Mary Aiken pushed for change before it became trendy. The other board members and commissioners virtually ignored the problem until it reached a crisis stage, and now many of them are trying to portray themselves as reformers. Heck, anybody can jump on a bandwagon.

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