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Official hopes to rework EDC

By making it county-controlled, a commissioner hopes to garner it more backers.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000

INVERNESS -- Before he leaves office at the end of his term this fall, County Commissioner Brad Thorpe wants to set one program straight.

Thorpe wants to take the Economic Development Council, a controversial public-private venture that has teetered on 3-2 votes of support from the commission, and turn it into a group that the entire commission can support.

Thorpe, an Economic Development Council supporter, provides a crucial third vote on the five-member commission. Commissioners Jim Fowler and Roger Batchelor usually vote in the council's favor as well.

With that support, the council has received about $60,000 in annual funding from the occupational license fee fund, as well as backing for the council's business grant program and other initiatives.

The narrow 3-2 margin means the county's support of the council, a group charged with nurturing local businesses and attracting new ones, could change any time at the whim of one person.

With Thorpe leaving the commission in November and with two other commissioners facing challengers in the elections this fall, Thorpe said, the council's future could rest on the vote of a single commissioner.

"I don't think that's the way we ought to do economic development -- on one vote," he said.

So Thorpe is searching for a way to make the council an entity the entire commission can support. But his latest suggestion -- a proposal that would dissolve the council as a separate entity and create a county-controlled advisory board in its place -- may be an idea that no one can get behind.

The criticisms of the council during its tumultuous 18-month existence have been varied. Some have complained about conflicts of interest among board members. Others have questioned the council's projects, from a sausage factory that didn't materialize to the Brown Schools facility for troubled youth that will open in Beverly Hills.

A recent misstep -- distribution of a promotional CD-ROM movie that shows the wrong county courthouse and other footage from outside the county -- has further undermined public confidence in the council, Thorpe said.

But the bottom line among commissioners comes down to this: Either you support spending county money to bring new business to the area or you don't.

Thorpe always has supported the council. So have Batchelor and Fowler, both of whom have represented the commission on the council's board.

The dissension comes from Commissioner Vicki Phillips, who never has supported the EDC; and Commissioner Gary Bartell, who thinks the county should help existing businesses but not work to lure new ones.

Bartell said he was open to discussing Thorpe's proposal to bring the council under greater county control as an advisory board, which would be subject to all public-records laws and would need the commission's approval for its projects.

"But it has to be something that will promote the existing business community," he said. "Where I have a problem is the far-reaching effort to bring outside businesses to Citrus."

Although Bartell offers dubious support for Thorpe's compromise plan, council supporters oppose it outright.

"I think this is an overreaction without a workable alternative," Fowler said. "The past has shown that Citrus County government cannot bring economic development into Citrus County."

The business community is equally skeptical of Thorpe's proposal. Local Realtor and council president-elect Kevin Cunningham said he would have nothing to do with it.

"It's the fact that it's business people talking to business people that makes an EDC work," Cunningham said.

"Let's take the politics out of it and let the business leaders set the policies and let the programs work," he said.

If the commission turned the council into a county advisory board, and if he were asked, council executive director Rick Jensen said he would stay on as an economic development coordinator.

"I would just hope that it would be a seamless evolution and we would be able to go right on doing what needs to be done," Jensen said.

The commissioners will decide the council's fate at their June 6 meeting.

"I'm just trying to make it work," Thorpe said. "If it's perceived as broken, maybe there's a way to fix it."

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