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Rowden: Rethink mission of EDC

The commissioner says other counties use their chamber of commerce. Maybe, she says, that could work in Hernando.

To County Commissioner Diane Rowden, the idea seems so obvious. What better vehicle to attract businesses to Hernando County than a collection of businesses?

Rowden, in an attempt to explore new methods of economic development, has collected information from more than a half dozen Florida counties, some of which use their chambers of commerce for that purpose at a fraction of the cost Hernando County has been paying.

"I haven't formed any conclusions," Rowden said. "I want to see what the options are."

The first priority, she said, is winding down the current contract with the Economic Development Commission that will end April 1.

After that, Rowden plans to hold a discussion at a County Commission meeting about the material she has collected, already distributed to her fellow commissioners. Rowden does not plan to share her information with the team from the University of Florida, which is studying options for economic development in a study to be released this summer.

That's because the final say on whether to hold a public-private partnership again like the EDC will rest with the County Commission.

"They are not going to make the decision," she said. "Why would I want to confuse matters?"

She's impressed that some counties pulled off economic development for much less money than the amount kicked in by Hernando County.

Some of the counties that responded to Rowden include Indian River, Walton, Putnam, Charlotte and Bay counties.

Indian River County has been responsible for economic development actions for at least 10 years, according to a letter from Penny Chandler, its executive director. Its operating budget for economic development is $170,842 for the current fiscal year. The county's contribution is a total of $110,000 for the past three years.

That compares to $331,000 the Hernando County Commission budgeted this year alone for the EDC, which expected to get a third of that amount from the private sector. However, the Indian River County chamber's efforts have been "seriously hurt" the past year because the county's contribution has not risen, while other costs, such as printing and advertising have shot up, Chandler wrote. Still, private control has advantages.

"Here at the chamber, we have the ability to mobilize a very large volunteer base of CEO's and management people who are able to assist with our program," Chandler wrote. "As a result, the small budget we have earmarked to (economic development) is leveraged and allows us to utilize our funds for initiatives important to the program such as materials and advertising."

Walton County has relied on an independent Economic Development Council since 1991. It receives $57,500 of its $80,000 budget from its County Commission.

In Putnam County, the chamber contracts with the county and five area municipalities as the lead economic development agency, according to chamber president, C.W. Larson. Its annual budget is $118,000, and 52 percent of that comes from the public sector.

Charlotte County used its chamber to lead an economic development council until the council became a nonprofit organization. Two years ago, it was brought under full county control, according to a letter from the county's chamber.

Bay County has an Economic Development Alliance, with the majority of its seats held by members of the private sector and a minority by the public sector, including the county and several cities. Each member must make a financial contribution. It is directed by the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. Such an arrangement avoids duplicate efforts in the business community and prevents the disruption of economic development by political whims, chamber president James Cherry wrote in his letter.

Hernando County Administrator Paul McIntosh says the public-private arrangement is something he has been advocating. But he said it's too soon to prescribe the same medicine for Hernando as that taken by the other counties.

Also, his past discussions with local chamber officials revealed they were not interested in such a role, he said. Chamber officials could not be reached for comment.

"I don't know what (the other counties) are doing with that money," he said. "Unless we get into a detailed analysis, it's hard to make a comparison."