Local News

Commission doesn't relent on IDA defunding

SEBRING - Despite a plea for the life of the IDA-EDC, the Avon Park agency still lost its funding. The commissioners climbed out of a $6 million deficit in part by cutting the entire budget of the Industrial Development Authority, which operated on $215,000 in FY 12-13 but requested $334,000 for next year. Commissioners hotly denied that 58 percent increase request last month, and last week Ron Handley's motion to withdraw all funds passed. On Tuesday night, with current IDA chair Paul McGehee out of town on business, former chairman John Shoop asked funding to be restored for one more year.
"We were somewhat taken aback," Shoop said, at last week's spur-of-the-moment defunding vote. In previous years, the IDA had met privately with each commissioner, but failed to do that this year. A common criticism, Commissioner Don Elwell suggested, is that the public doesn't know what the IDA does. That's because of the need for secrecy when business executives seek information and assistance for companies they could bring here, Shoop said. Shoop outlined four projects currently in the works: Code name Impala: 30 jobs, capital investment of $2.1 million. Shoop said this project is 99 percent complete, but didn't explain if that meant the company is on the cusp of starting a business in Highlands County. Metallica, 15-30 jobs. Shoop said the IDA has worked hand in hand with Sebring Airport Authority. Pony, 200-300 jobs. Shoop said this project originated after a referral from Commissioner Jack Richie. LB Fish, 75 jobs. Shoop said this is a business expansion. "For 10 years, that's all I've heard, potential," said John Nelson, president of the local tea party. "Potential this, potential this, potential this. Walmart would have come here anyway, but how many became Walmart?" Previously, Shoop said, the IDA has played a role in recruiting Genpac, Amerikan, E-Stone, Funder America, BP, Cross Country and Walmart. Walmart currently employs 796, and 600 work at Cross Country, now known as Agero, Shoop said. E-Stone eventually expanded 50 jobs to 80. Cross Country's original investment was $3.8 million; Amerikan $4.5 million, Funder America $4.5 million, E-Stone $26 million, for a total $38 million. The IDA's effort also created the county tax abatement ordinance, the tourism development council, the small business development council and FHREDI. "You can't give up on marketing the county," Shoop said. "That shows we are not interested in growth." Closing the agency creates questions, Shoop cautioned. "We have to have an exit strategy." When the State of Florida refers a possible business or industry to Highlands County, how will that be handled, he asked? Will it go to one of the three municipal chambers of commerce? Sebring Chamber of Commerce director Steve Nyhan said he doesn't even know the lexicon of enterprise zones and brownfields. "This is a real in-depth job... It's difficult to just absorb automatically." "I feel it would be a mistake to cut funding for the IDA," Shoop said. "It takes a heck of a long time to reopen that door again. "Give it one more year," Shoop asked. "In six months, if you don't feel right, shut it down from that standpoint." Only the IDA receives funding, said Shoop. Its board also controls the Economic Development Commission, which solicits funds from private businesses like the three chambers. "It doesn't take county money." But only seven out of the county's 11,000 businesses are contributing members, Richie pointed out. "I think that's a little short." IDA director Steven Weeks is soliciting more, Shoop said. "I'm a strong advocate," Richie said. "But we have only so many dollars. We have to take dramatic action." "I'm in marketing, so I understand the need," said Elwell, "But if I had marketed my company with the effectiveness the EDC has, I would be among the 9 percent unemployed. "I suggest we allot zero at this time, and six months from now, we'll take another look at this," If the IDA-EDC brings an employer to the county, the commission could vote again on funding, Elwell suggested. "In marketing, we love deadlines, and this would give them a lot of pressure." "We don't have to make a decision at this minute, we can move on," Richie said. The commission left the subject without deciding. However, at the end of their 4.5 hour meeting, McGehee texted Commissioner Greg Harris. Blame McGehee, not Weeks, for the failure to communicate with the board, and McGehee offered to resign if the commission would restore the IDA's funding. "No," Richie said. It wasn't McGehee's fault. "It's not necessary for him to fall on his sword." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828