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Sarasota Wednesday, Jun. 16, 2021 5 months ago

Sarasota EDC: Take it private

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Mike Moran sealed the deal by proposing to defund the economic development organization. The private sector should be in charge.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Surely, Sarasota County Commissioner Mike Moran’s vindictive stunt June 8 was convincing evidence that Sarasota County’s private business sector needs to be in charge of economic development.

And this: that the county and city governments in the region should be involved but be involved as public servants to the private sector, not in control.

Two days before the board of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County was to interview its leading candidate for the president’s job, Moran had added a three-part item to the commission’s June 8 agenda (see box). And he did so with no warning or discussion with the EDC board beforehand.

Talk about disrespectful and unprofessional.

To little surprise, the top candidate for the job said no thanks. Who wouldn’t have done that? No one wants to walk into a new job where the people in charge of the money and the future of the organization want to undermine you.

Moran has had issues with the EDC going back to previous President Mark Huey, who resigned in December 2019. “It didn’t just spring up,” he said at the June 8 commission meeting. “From the very beginning, all I’ve ever asked for is clear, measurable goals. I made it very clear that I wanted less words on paper and more numbers on an Excel spreadsheet.” And then to add insult to injury, Moran told the Observer: “I’m not interested any longer in faculty-lunch room, dorm-room philosophical chitchat anymore. I want measurable outcomes.”

Well, you can pretty much say those comments seal the deal for the EDC. Its board won’t be able to attract anyone who is smart, ambitious and innovative, knowing that Moran and the majority of county commissioners want to “defund” the EDC.

Even the EDC’s search executive said the obvious: Word will spread like a dry summer fire in economic development circles that Sarasota County is in turmoil and should be avoided — not just for EDC executives but also companies that might be looking to relocate.

Great, just what we need: reinforcing evidence that Sarasota is unfriendly to business.

All of this illustrates the inherent problems with publicly funded, government-controlled economic development organizations. They get sucked into the maw of politics, egos and political philosophies. Remember the fight between Gov. Rick Scott and Speaker Richard Corcoran over Enterprise Florida? And when you put government in charge of anything, well, our readers know what we think of that: It rarely turns out well.

This is how it has been in Sarasota County for the past 15 years. Before that, economic development fell under the auspices of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and what was known as the Committee of 100.

But after turmoil engulfed the chamber and after business leaders in North Port thought they were receiving short shrift from the Sarasota chamber, county commissioners and the leaders of the chambers agreed to funding a countywide economic development corporation with an annual tax on every business in the county.

As is in many communities, the new economic development corporation was a public-private partnership, with a large board of business and government leaders. But the County Commission controlled the money (You know the saying: He who holds the gold makes the rules.)

Last year, the commission allocated $1.7 million to the EDC.

And as most of these economic development organizations go — especially those tethered to local or state governments — there is always angst over whether the money spent on economic development actually does as much good as the EDC officials tout.

They all publish data touting how many jobs they helped create, how many companies they recruited, how many local businesses they helped wend their way through needless government regulations, how many companies they interviewed and the many economic multipliers that are spawned by their work.

All of that stands as the EDC’s “return on investment” for that tax money allocated to it. But the truth is, “measurable outcomes” are hard to quantify (see box).

What often results in this public-private partnership arrangement is what was described to us as the “step-parent and step-child” relationship. Not a lot of love, especially when the politicians are in charge.

Sarasota County’s business community — in particular, the EDC’s board — now finds itself facing another decision that will have deep, important consequences: what to do next:

  • Make nice and try to build/rebuild a trusting relationship with the County Commission (politicians) — a commission majority that has sided with defunding the EDC? Ha!
  • End the relationship with the County Commission and the business tax and become a private enterprise again?
  • Go big and regional? Create a privatized EDC that encompasses Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, DeSoto and Hardee counties?

For the past year, the EDC board has been on a quest to find its next president and continue with the model and path it has pursued for the past 15 years.

This is an important inflection point, a time to recognize that having the County Commission in control of the gold is not the way to go.

That structure might work if you had what existed in Florida when Rick Scott was governor — an elected leader who saw one of his primary responsibilities was to do what he could to create an attractive economic and business climate and to be the state’s top salesperson for new business.

If only we had politicians at the county and city levels who grasped the same concept. But that’s not going to happen.

If Sarasota County — including the cities of Sarasota, Venice, North Port and Longboat Key — is to have a healthy economy, it needs advocates and a sales force (e.g. business leaders) constantly pushing for a business and regulatory climate that makes sense.

The private sector should be driving this effort, with county and city governments — both elected officials and government staffs — working in concert as public servants that will allow businesses to flourish, create jobs and make Sarasota a county of opportunity, not a place that specializes in choking the engine that keeps a community growing.

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