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Economic development group sued over its unpaid bill

TAMPA — An economic development nonprofit that teaches "best business practices" to economic organizations around Florida recently had its own business problems: It couldn't pay a $30,000 bill to a Tampa hotel, which slapped it with a lawsuit.

In May 2010, the Florida Economic Development Council — which according to its website educates members on how to "enhance professionalism" — had a three-day conference at the Intercontinental Hotel. Between morning sessions on "Attracting Foreign Investment" and "Terminating Tension on the Team," conferees representing economic development groups and corporations from around the state were treated to Bloody Marys and mimosas. Bar tab: about $1,800.

Early evening cocktails and Mediterranean hors d'oeuvres ran close to $11,000. A dinner of filet mignon with crab and shrimp for 230 cost about $80 a person, washed down with 59 bottles of premium wines like Santa Margherita pinot grigio at $53 a bottle.

All told, the food and liquor bill with service and tax ran more than $70,000 — about $30,000 of which was still not paid 14 months later. So, in July the Intercontinental sued the FEDC to get its money.

"We had some tough times and have had to fiscally tighten," said FEDC president and CEO Amy Evancho, a member of Gov. Rick Scott's economic transition team.

But how could the state's business-advice council run up a bill it couldn't pay?

Part of the problem, said Mike Meidel, an FEDC board member and chairman of the Pinellas County Economic Development Department, was that duplicate membership lists caused members to be counted twice, making it appear that the organization had more money from dues than it did. Coupled with hard economic times and unexpectedly low 2010 conference attendance, the organization miscalculated its funds and couldn't meet its obligations.

"An awkward time," said Meidel.

But overspending appears to be nothing new for the group, which has a tiny office on the University of South Florida main campus where Evancho works alone.

Tax returns for the past three years show the FEDC operating at an increasing deficit: a $28,000 loss for the fiscal year ending in June 2008, $59,000 in 2009 and $78,000 in 2010.

"This year, we've worked so hard to get back on the upswing, and we have," said Evancho.

"The organization is making a turnaround," said Meidel.

More than 300 members registered for this year's conference, held in June in Orlando, where, again, lots of premium wine and beef were served. But this time the FEDC made money from registration fees and from sponsors — including Florida Power & Light, Pinellas County Economic Development Department and Florida Trend magazine, which like the St. Petersburg Times is owned by Times Publishing Co. The event pulled in enough, said Evancho, to pay the 2010 and 2011 conference bills in late July.

Lawyers for Intercontinental confirm that the debt was met and the lawsuit was dismissed almost two weeks ago.

"At this point, a positive spin for the FEDC would be nice," said Evancho.

Staff writer Jeff Harrington and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

Economic development group sued over its unpaid bill 08/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 11:06pm]
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