The long-running contentious relationship between county commissioners and the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County resurfaced Wednesday as EDC Chief Operating Officer Erin Silk presented the organization’s fiscal year 2022 report.
Consistent with years past, well before Silk’s time with the EDC, the two longest-tenured members of the Sarasota County Commission characterized the report as long on buzzwords and short on tangible data to justify the level of funding the organization receives from county taxpayers, which comes in the form of business tax and per capita contribution revenues.
The EDC gets public funding from the county and its municipalities in addition to private donations. Although its goal is to achieve an equal balance of public and private funding, 36% of its $1.6 million current year budget, or $576,800, came from private sources.
In return, it serves as a third-party nonprofit partner in marketing the county to potential employers and provides business-related services and activities outside the scope of government. As a business recruiter, it has the latitude to work with companies with anonymity — as they generally prefer — up until the time sunshine laws require they go public.
Under new leadership of CEO Lisa Krouse — who took the helm just less than two years ago — and with a reconstituted board of directors, commissioners acknowledged last June that progress had been made by the EDC while still reducing its county funding by one-third. It was the first of a three-year plan to phase out county funding if tangible results deemed satisfactory by the commission are not produced.
“It's a completely reset organization with new leadership, a new direction and is adapting to the current circumstances,” said Commission Chairman Ron Cutsinger, one of three members remaining at the dais from the year prior. He also serves as the commission’s representative on the EDC board.
”Every event that I've been to has been high energy, very positive, fully attended and a lot of excitement on a lot of very diverse industries.”
That said, Cutsinger agreed with commissioners Mike Moran and Nancy Detert that, come budget season, the EDC will need to produce the measurables they demand to not further cut its funding.
In her presentation, Silk attempted to provide some of that data.
“Ten of the projects that we were working with successfully closed last year, meaning they’ve broken ground on their facility or are opening their expansion,” she said. “These projects report $24.5 million in capital investment over the next 10 years, and this equates to $3 million net in tax benefit, meaning our municipal government partners and school board will collect a net $3 million in taxes after all other costs are considered.”
Much of the EDC’s work is intangible — serving as the county’s business permit arm, hosting site visits, allocating COVID-related CARES Act funds, and as a private entity marketing the county and performing services a government cannot. The EDC is also the county’s designee agency with the state of Florida, and as such works with Enterprise Florida to respond to requests for proposal from foreign and domestic companies and to develop and track business recruiting leads.
Moran, who has been on a mission to defund the EDC for more than six years, expressed continued frustration over a lack of tangible results to justify its just more than $1 million in total public funding. Periodic turnover on the commission, he added, tends to blur the historical perspective of the EDC’s performance.
Gone from the commission from last year are Christian Ziegler and former Chairman Al Maio.
“It's very frustrating because all of this learning curve is at the taxpayers’ expense,” Moran said, careful to not lay blame on troubles of years past on Silk. “The institutional historical knowledge of this is very troubling to me, and that's where we need to get down to stuff that can be memorialized, which is results. The results, depending on how you measure them, are awful long-term. It’s promising short-term, but it's been promising short-term for six years since I've been sitting here. I've had for six years these promising glimmers of hope. I appreciate you Erin. It’s not totally your water to carry on this for sure. It's a bigger conversation well beyond you.”
Why, Moran asked Silk, should the county not simply bring two people in-house to perform economic development tasks?
She cited one example.
“There are a couple private property owners in Sarasota County that we see opportunity to develop light industrial,” she said. “It’s up to them whether or not they want to work with us, but they're willing to engage with us. There are about 500 acres right now that we're working with FPL to produce a marketing video for this property owner who has the opportunity to create 3,000 single-family residences or 600,000 square feet of light industrial.”
Her point being the desired confidentiality of the client is unavailable if working with a government, and without the EDC’s relationships, expertise and assistance the property would likely bring only more residential rather than at least the possibility of more jobs.
Detert wasn't convinced, adding she wants to see more "meat and potatoes" come May.
“Year after year I have supported you every time, and I'm thinking this could be the last time that I can support you,” she said. “What an organization like Enterprise Florida and the EDC can do for a community is they can take a small businessman and make him into a big businessman, which he couldn't do on his own because you're opening doors. I haven't seen any of that happen here.
"Before May you're going to have to prove to us that you are capable of getting all your ducks in order.”