Economic development chair sees progress

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Lately, Economic Development Council (EDC) Chairman Ron Cichon has been more juiced up than usual about economic development, having recently attended a four-day academy on the topic in Palatka, FL. Sponsored by the North Florida Economic Development Partnership (NFEDP), a private/public entity that promotes economic development in north central Florida (including Jefferson County), the academy consisted of two two-day sessions, one on March 12-13, the second on March 26-27. Titled “Investing In Your Community: The hows, whats, and whys of Economic Development,” Cichon was impressed enough with the information that he presented city and county officials with a printed summary of the conference’s highlights. The summary, in brief, defines economic development, states why it’s important, renders a quick overview of the process, and cites the three ingredients for a successful economic development program. It also enumerates the key points to “closing a deal” and touches on economic development goals and incentives. All in three typed pages — front and back — and contained within a notebook binder. Cichon believes that if local government officials read the summary and take to heart its key points, it will go a long ways toward improving this community’s chances of attracting businesses. He points for example to developments in surrounding counties, as noted in a recent article in Florida Trend Magazine. These include the planned construction of a $6-million environmental institution in Wakulla County; the planned construction of $300-million bio-nitrogen plant in Taylor County; the investment of $640,000 by Gadsden County in its Development Council so that the latter can launch a business retention and expansion program, along with a workforce development consortium to identify future workforce training needs; and construction of a $7-million Pilot Travel Center in Hamilton County last year, a project funded in part by a $500,000 incentive from the Hamilton County Development Authority. “All around us are cities and counties spending millions of dollars to attract businesses,” Cichon says. Which is not to say that Jefferson County isn’t doing its part, he says. The Florida Trend article, in fact, took note of the $10 to $16-million sports complex that county officials here are considering at Lloyd. Cichon likewise credits the current batch of city and county officials for their interest and active participation in economic development efforts. “I’m pleased we’re getting increased government support from the city and county,” Cichon says. As a proponent of economic development since he first moved to Monticello in the 1970s, Cichon likens the early efforts to “digging a hole with a spoon”, in terms of getting anything accomplished or support or assistance from the local governments. “It took 12 years to bring sewer and water to I-10,” Cichon recalls, referring to the then efforts of the Community Development Corporation, the predecessor to today’s EDC. Granted that the sewer/water extension didn’t spawn the level of growth that some envisioned, Cichon says. But it did, he says, enhanced the interchange and brought there several motels, restaurants and other businesses that today are paying taxes and adding to the county’s coffers and the community’s betterment. Even so, economic development remains an uphill struggle, he says. “So few people understand the complexity and competitiveness of economic development,” Cichon says. “We’ve got to get in the game. We’re in the game more than ever now. But we need to get into it even more.” He cites the three key lessons that he took away from the academy. No. 1: The only two ways that governments generate more monies to provide the services that people want are through taxes or investment in economic development, Cichon says. No. 2: Communities must be prepared to take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself, either in the form of a telephone call or an email. The first question that businesses looking to relocate or open a new branch ask is, “Do you have the available acreage and the water, sewer and other utilities available?” Cichon says. “We can’t say, ‘maybe we’ll get a grant, or maybe the County Commission will approve it,” he says. “The site has to be shovel-ready right then and there.” No. 3: Incentives are a must to promote economic development; they must, however, be smart and thought-out. “And they must be tied to job creation,” Cichon says. Although small in size and budget capabilities, Jefferson County is fortunate to be part of a formidable organization that is dedicated to economic development, Cichon says. He means the NFEDP, of which he can’t say enough good things. Composed of 15 counties in the northern and central part of the state, with Jefferson at its most northwestern boundary, the NFEDP’s stated mission is to facilitate economic development and high-quality job growth within its assigned region. “As part of a 15-county consortium, we’ve got clout,” Cichon says, citing the many resources available to Jefferson County because of its membership in the organization — resources it otherwise wouldn’t have. He cites as one example the two conferences that the NFEDP has hosted in recent times to familiarize site selectors with the region and its natural and people resources. Businesses nowadays, if they want to relocate, go to a site selector company, Cichon says. The site selector company then does all the footwork and presents the customer company with a shortlist of the best potential sites for the latter’s selection. These site selector companies, Cichon says, canvas the entire country in their search for viable locations. Yet, but for the conferences that the NFEDP hosted, many of these companies and individuals had no idea that north Florida existed, let alone that it offered viable options, Cichon says. “We have clout as a member county of the NFEDP,” he says. “The question is, what are we doing with that clout?”