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A Times Editorial

Economic development at crossroads

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

The Citrus County Commission will trod familiar ground when it convenes Tuesday to discuss which path leads to a successful economic development program. After all, the commission has been struggling to reach that goal for about 10 years, and several routes it has taken have led to dead ends.

It is time for the commission to concentrate on where it wants to go before it decides how to get there.

The commission has thrown good money after bad in an effort to underwrite a public-private partnership to handle the chore of economic development since it abandoned the county-run office headed by Roy Taylor in 1993. The next creation was the Economic Development Association of Citrus County, and it was succeeded by the Economic Development Council, which has soaked up almost $200,000 in public money in the past two years.

Failures and embarrassments have outnumbered the EDC's successes. Early attempts to shut the public out of its doings irreparably harmed the EDC's public image, undermining later attempts to rectify that misstep and culminating in the firing of former executive director Rick Jensen last fall.

The EDC has been only one commission vote from extinction for almost a year, and at Tuesday's meeting the group is expected to justify its existence and make the case once more to reinvent itself.

To ensure full accountability to the public for its investment in the EDC, the commission should focus on the option of returning the task of economic development to the county staff. Doing so would negate the inherent conflicts that exist in an organization that is governed by private individuals who are on the inside track to acquire information about businesses and industries that are considering locating in Citrus County. Turf wars between competing businesses represented on the EDC board are intrinsic, and no matter how altruistic the intentions of its members, those conflicts and inequalities tear at the foundation of public trust.

But even before the commission considers returning to a county-run department, its most sensible course would be to suspend additional funding of the EDC temporarily until it knows what it wants, and can reasonably expect, from an economic development program.

The questions have been out there for years, but seldom are they answered. They include:

Should the EDC's priority be to attract new businesses from outside the county?

Should the EDC make more of a commitment to the expansion of existing businesses?

Should the EDC concentrate on developing land and infrastructure to accommodate industries in designated areas of the county?

If the commission can reach consensus on those core issues, it then should draw up a contract with the group that spells out clearly defined, quantifiable goals. In order to continue to receive public funding, those objectives should be achieveable and measurable, including minimums for job creation, and additions to the industrial tax base.

Without demanding assessable results, the commission invites the EDC to avoid true accountability and find its own way, which is a task that has been beyond its understanding so far.

The commission must make it clear that providing 50 percent of the EDC's funding means it is, in effect, the sole client, and if the private group cannot accomplish what is expected of it, it cannot continue to exist. If Tuesday's discussion is not based on that premise, it will be a waste of time.

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