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Economic development chief defends embattled council


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Rick Jensen says that, in real life, he is a shy person, not the kind of guy whose name you might expect to see in the newspapers every other day.

But headlines and controversy have come with Jensen's job as executive director of the Economic Development Council, a private group that receives county funding to promote local businesses and attract new ones.

The group has faced a maelstrom of complaints in recent months, from challenges to closed meetings that were finally opened, to criticisms of a promotional CD-ROM movie.

Concerns about the Brown Schools, a residential treatment facility for troubled youths that the council helped bring to Beverly Hills, are still rippling among some residents.

The County Commission, which has historically supported the group on narrow 3-2 votes, will discuss on Tuesday a proposal by Commissioner Brad Thorpe to bring the council directly under the county's control.

Jensen says the criticisms are unfounded and often come from people who don't want any growth or don't know "the whole story."

"I didn't know the whole situation when I got here," said Jensen, who came from Pinellas County in January 1999. "My assumption was that the EDC had the respect and the backing of the county commissioners, (who are) our partners, and the public.

"I came here expecting that the community understood that I am a professional and I know what the hell I am doing," he continued. "I am not going to try to recruit anything that is contrary to what we are trying to do in our community."

Finding a niche

Richard Neil Jensen, 49, is a businessman himself, having tried his hand at several careers before becoming Pinellas Park's economic development director in 1994.

As a government major at Florida State University in the early 1970s, Jensen planned on becoming a career military man. Jensen graduated in 1973 as one of the top Air Force ROTC cadets in the country and was given a regular commission in the military as a second lieutenant.

His military career came to an abrupt end two years later, as he was finishing work toward his master's degree in public administration. The Air Force discharged Jensen because of a back injury he suffered in a botched plane landing during training.

"I was disappointed, but that's the way it goes," Jensen said. "Things happen in life that you're not always ready for."

Jensen worked for a year as a city planner in Sarasota before finding his niche at Metropolitan Insurance, first as a salesman and then as a manager.

Jensen boasts that, within his first year on the job, he took the position of the man who had hired him. At home, he said, he has boxes of trophies and plaques earned during his 12-plus years at Metropolitan.

In the late 1980s, a friend of a friend introduced Jensen to the Charles J. Givens Organization, a group that sold books, tapes and seminars offering get-rich-quick financial advice.

For about two years, Jensen taught the daylong seminars in hotel ballrooms across the country. He also said he wrote the chapters on insurance in two Givens books, Wealth Without Risk and Financial Self-Defense, although he is not credited.

Jensen said he left the group by 1990, before Givens lost lawsuits and received sanctions for misrepresentation, fraud and deceptive business practices.

"I got a feeling about it," Jensen said, admitting the organization seemed too good to be true.

From 1990 to 1993, Jensen ran his own Orlando-area financial services company called Atlantic First Financial. Despite his efforts to check into investments before selling them to clients, Jensen said, he stepped into another scam and was sanctioned by the National Association of Securities Dealers.

Jensen said he was just as duped as his clients when he sold them Premier Benefit Capital Trust certificates, a Ponzi scheme in which money from new investors was passed on to older investors as their return.

By the time the securities association sanctioned Jensen in 1995, he had already closed his business and become Pinellas Park's economic development director. Jensen said he gave up his securities license to avoid paying fines, and his insurance repaid his clients for their losses.

Now Jensen is the point man for Citrus County's economic development, one of a few people in the county who knows exactly which businesses are interested in the area. In his spare time, he teaches an evening ethics class at Central Florida Community College.

Jensen said his career mishaps, along with a personal bankruptcy he filed in 1987 after a costly divorce, have no bearing on his ability to steer the county's economic development efforts.

"Everybody has things in their background," he said. "Why would that have anything to do with economic development, for heaven's sakes?"

Selling the region

Jensen traces his attitudes about economic development back to his tenure as Pinellas Park's economic development director.

Flipping through a glossy booklet he prepared to market Pinellas Park, Jensen pointed to pictures of the Bay Bridge, Busch Gardens, the Tampa airport and the Devil Rays -- none of which are within the city limits of Pinellas Park.

"When you're selling an area, you're not just selling your little town," Jensen said. "You're selling the region, you're selling what people use."

That argument didn't go over so well with critics of the CD-ROM movie that the council recently made to market Citrus County. The seven-minute flick includes shots of the Tampa airport and sandy beaches and shows the Suncoast Parkway as if it were already built in Citrus County.

"(Jensen) said this CD was to market Citrus County, and then you watch it and you don't see Citrus County," county Commissioner Vicki Phillips said. The other Pinellas Park lesson, Jensen said, is something Citrus County should avoid: It should not allow urban sprawl and pollution.

Jensen said he watched as the Tampa Bay waters he fished and swam in as a boy became polluted by faulty septic systems and careless industries.

"We've got the same kind of growth coming (to Citrus County)," he said. "We shouldn't make the same mistakes."

Jensen said he has turned away a tire recycling factory and a rubber manufacturing plant because those businesses would not be friendly to Citrus County's environment. And he says the county needs to accelerate efforts to take houses off septic tanks and hook them to central sewers.

"Growth is going to happen anyway," Jensen said, dismissing the arguments made by county commission candidate Jim McIntosh and others that central sewers pave the way for large-scale development. "If we don't have sewers, we'll have growth and pollution."

The bottom line

Although the county has tried numerous incarnations of economic development groups, this council is just a year and a half old, too young to be judged just yet, supporters say.

"I think Rick is doing a good job with a brand new organization," county Commissioner Roger Batchelor said. "There's a lot of stuff to go through to get it up and running, and I have to give him credit. He hasn't had everyone on his side."

The group has been slow to take off. The council has not raised a nickel of the $10,000 it expected to make in fundraisers this year. So far, membership dues have brought in $5,750 this year, a far cry from the $50,000 the group hoped to generate by year's end.

Jensen said some local businesses have been reluctant to join the council, which has dues ranging from $100 to $1,000 based on the size of the business, because they already pay the $25 occupational license fees that the county uses to fund the group.

"It's a hard sell (to businesses) because they're saying, "We're already funding you out of our right pocket, why are you digging into our left pocket?' " Jensen said.

Developer Stan Olsen said he doesn't fault Jensen for the council's slow acceptance, because he said the council's concept itself is flawed. Olsen thinks economic development is better handled by a network of business people who directly market the area to industries that might be willing to relocate.

"What they're doing is working with an old paradigm, but it's not done that way," Olsen said. "The only way you can really sell people on coming here is through a direct approach."

But Jensen said the council model has worked well in 63 other Florida counties, and it just needs to be given more time to work here.

And for him, the bottom line for a council project, such as the Brown Schools, comes from the job growth figures, not the newspaper headlines.

"They've had 250 or 300 people apply for jobs at the Brown Schools," Jensen said. "To me, that's the vote of 300 people saying they think Brown Schools is a good idea. But you never hear about that in the newspaper."

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