It’s like overhauling the engine of a car as it is careening down the interstate at 80 mph. That’s how Lisa Krouse describes the process of rebuilding the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County while it also goes about its business of recruiting companies and serving as the local government liaison to the business community.
Nearly a year ago, Krouse came out of retirement to become the second straight interim executive director of the troubled organization, shortly afterward shedding the interim tag, her stated mission at the time to stay as long as the EDC needs her to tune up what for years had been regarded as a sputtering clunker on the highway to economic growth.
After nearly 12 months of restructuring the board of the directors, appointing committees representative of the community, hiring experienced staff, creating a “concierge services” program for new and existing businesses, and providing transparency regarding the EDC’s activities, Krouse found herself earlier this month fighting for the organization’s continued county funding before the Sarasota County Commission.
The former executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Lakewood Ranch-based FCCI Insurance Group described the progress made by the EDC over the past year during a Q&A with the Sarasota Observer.
Following the recent effort to further defund the EDC by two county commissioners, what is your relationship with that elected body?
We have to appreciate that we have diverse viewpoints, and as long as we are treating each other with respect, I think we should be open to accepting that we all don't see things the same way. But at the end of the day, there are commonalities, so whether it's (commissioners) Christian Ziegler or Mike Moran, there are things that we have in common and things that we feel passionate about. I don't walk away angry or feeling like I've been let down. I appreciate the fact that we don't always all agree.
Is there a misperception among some commissioners about about the EDCs functions, and what does the EDC need to publicly demonstrate in order to continue to garner their support?
I can't speak to how much they know about our business. I think it's about valuing the role of the EDC. The history has not served us well, but when you replace a supervisor or a manager, you don't hold that individual responsible for the prior leaders’ actions. It's unfortunate that we haven't really had the ability to have a clean slate on some fronts.
County commissioners have been pressing for tangible results. EDCs in major manufacturing states are able to mark results by the creation of thousands of jobs. How do you define success here?
We do have unique assets and I think we've been able to demonstrate tangible results. That has made a big difference in the eyes of the business community, people who sit on our board, and those commissioners who voted in in our favor. I recently had a meeting with Tra Williams who owns the FleetForce, which is a truck driver training program. He came to us a little over a year ago and said he needed a lot of land to be able to train. Erin (Silk, vice president of business development) made a connection with State College of Florida and then with CareerSource. Fast forward a year and they have just signed a deal to open another location in Venice. They train something like 200 drivers in a month and you can improve your financial status very quickly because it's going to be a six-figure job.
Short of major manufacturing, what are the emerging industry sectors in Sarasota County?
You’d be amazed by the technology companies like Omeza, which is changing the world of wound care, and CEA, which makes life-like mannequins to teach the medical profession. I'm just awestruck by what is really here.
As the Sarasota area has gained national recognition as a highly desirable place to live, how is that impacting it as a place to do business?
This will never be a sleepy untold story again. We will never be able to go back to the way it was. When you look at the Bayfront and the plans for the Van Wezel, Mote Marine and Benderson Park, this community is in the midst of a huge transformation so we've got to make sure that the business community is prepared for the changes while we're also fostering a business-friendly environment.
How does the unavailability of affordable and attainable housing in the county impact companies here?
The EDC had a roundtable conversation with 25 business leaders at the CEO level and at the university level as well, and without exception everyone pointed to affordable workforce housing as a real challenge for them.
Are you hearing objections from companies you are recruiting because of the housing crisis?
No objections, but what we have heard from companies is that when they have extended an offer to a candidate, whether it be at the executive level or any other level in they organization, they have gotten rejections based upon the fact that they cannot find housing.
As a public-private, nonprofit extension of county and municipal governments via interlocal agreements, what are functions the EDC can perform that a government cannot?
We make decisions quickly, so I think that's a big part of what we bring to the table. Six months ago I was standing at Erin’s desk and up pops a notification that the Stardust roller skating rink is up for sale. She had a client from Chicago who had called her a year ago and said he wanted to open a hockey rink. She picked up the phone and called him and that same week we had six NHL hockey players and coaches come barreling into the office.
They have since closed on the rink and it will become a professional hockey training rank. Now they are working on a second deal, and the county and city have been instrumental in moving permitting along. We work on speed to market, and businesses need to be responded to quickly. That’s what we are able to do without the constraints of government.
Among the significant changes made is a new board of directors. How is it different from the prior board?
We realized that the board was not representative of all of the community. We did not have universities and colleges represented on our board, so how do you have a conversation about talent without having that representation? We did not have the arts and cultural community represented as an employer. They represent a huge segment of our employee population and a huge part of the economic drivers in our community. We did not have North Port represented, yet North Port is one of the largest growing communities. And now we have a communication playbook so the messaging is consistent.
What is the communication playbook?
What we had heard was if you asked any board member what the EDC did, what the mission was, you would hear 20 different answers. We came up with a communication playbook so everyone is on the same page about where we are, what we do and why we're doing it.
As you close in on one year of leading the EDC, how do you assess its progress thus far?
I'm amazed that we've come so far in 11 months. We have got a strong team, but I also attribute it to a business community that I think that appreciates the work that's being done.