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Rumors fly as Pasco County Economic Development Council sets emergency session

LAND O'LAKES — The board of directors of the agency charged with recruiting businesses to Pasco County meets today in an emergency session.

Exactly why Pasco Economic Development Council chairman Stew Gibbons called the meeting was a mystery Monday, even to some board members, including Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano. The board's executive committee met last week.

But the rumor making the rounds in the business community: Mary Jane Stanley's job as executive director is on the line.

Stanley, who makes a $110,323 salary, has led the county-funded nonprofit for 10 years. She is widely respected in business circles but has faced criticism recently over remarks she made to a business publication about Pasco County's permitting process.

On Monday, Stanley declined to answer questions about whether the board was considering firing her, referring the matter to Gibbons.

Gibbons, president of Connerton, did not return phone calls.

Board member Tim Hayes said he'd heard the rumor but did not want to speculate on details.

"I'm shocked and surprised because at every board meeting she gets nothing but praise," said Hayes, a Land O'Lakes lawyer.

The Pasco EDC promotes the county as a place to do business and markets government-run programs designed to lure and retain companies — everything from incentive programs to technology assistance.

In the current fiscal year, the group got nearly half of its $930,000 budget — $430,500 — from county taxpayers.

Though county departments are having to slash their proposed budgets and consider layoffs to deal with a projected $35.7-million deficit, the EDC is asking for the same amount of county funding next year.

The group says it is stepping up efforts to attract larger corporate investors and needs to keep its county funding in place to help do that.

The EDC has worked closely with the county on changes to its growth management regulations, splitting the tab last year on an Urban Land Institute report on improving Pasco's business climate.

But as the county's top economic development cheerleader, Stanley walks a thin line between the public and private worlds, a balancing act that can be precarious.

Case in point: In an article published last month in the Maddux Business Report, Stanley made an unflattering aside about the county's permitting process.

"We have a bad reputation," the article quoted her as saying. "Trying to get a permit is horrible."

Some county officials were put off by the comment, particularly because it comes as Pasco has been responding to the Urban Land Institute findings by rewriting its Land Development Code and trying to simplify its permitting process.

Michele Baker, chief assistant county administrator, said Monday she'd spoken with Stanley about her comments.

"We have discussed that and how that was an unfortunate quote," said Baker. She said Stanley told her that she'd been talking about the past and "it didn't come out the way she intended it."

"It upset me, no question," said Commissioner Michael Cox, who said county officials "jump through hoops" to fast-track EDC-sponsored projects.

The comment stung particularly hard because the agency gets paid to promote the county.

"We're their No. 1 investor, let's put it that way," Cox said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Rumors fly as Pasco County Economic Development Council sets emergency session 06/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 29, 2009 9:22pm]

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