back to basics
Editor’s note: The Sun is recapping its top stories of 2012. Look for stories to follow each day, through Dec. 31.
This year got off to a promising start for economic development in Charlotte County.
In February, county officials signed a $2.5 million land deal with food-distribution giant Cheney Brothers, in what appeared to be the first of many new job-generating partnerships between private enterprise and local government.
The Riviera Beach, Fla.-based Cheney Brothers agreed to expand its $1 billion-a-year-in-revenues operation in the county by building a 250,000-square-foot distribution facility and creating between 350 and 600 new jobs in the next 10 years, with an average wage and benefits package of $45,000. In exchange, Charlotte sold 35 acres of county-owned industrial property near the Punta Gorda Airport to Cheney for $2.5 million, and agreed to kick in a couple million in economic-development incentives. It was lauded as the epitome of public-private partnership.
But since those early months when county government was abuzz with Cheney, not much has happened — at least not in the way of job-creation. The year that started with a roar seems to be ending with a whimper.
About a half-dozen development deals in Charlotte County either have fallen through or remain stagnant in the months since the Cheney deal. From the withdrawal of Mainstage Development, which proposed building a state-of-the-art music and entertainment district in Murdock Village, to the retraction of Colonial Construction Concrete Precast’s proposal to expand its national headquarters in Placida and create 70 new jobs, economic development has seen a downward slide.
Plans for a water park in Murdock Village have pretty much come to a halt, and although officials say discussions to bring a Ripken youth baseball experience to Charlotte County are still ongoing, no public announcements have been made. The county and luxury yacht-maker, Aussie Yachts, severed their relationship this year after plans to build a boat-manufacturing plant fizzled.
And let’s not forget the most controversial economic-development deal of 2012: the county’s efforts to acquire and convert the former IMPAC university campus in Punta Gorda into a business and technology incubator that would serve as a launching pad for young start-ups. It was a proposal meant to nurture and grow innovative new industries in Charlotte County, bridging the gap between the county’s surplus of low-paying, service and retail jobs, and the high-skilled, high-paying jobs of the health and medical fields. It also was a proposal that met with strong resistance and sharp criticism from a vocal group of citizens who believe the county shouldn’t spend taxpayer money to bolster private enterprise.
Most local business leaders and county officials say a sluggish economy is to blame. With credit tightening and few investors willing to pony up the millions needed to get these projects started, it’s hard to say when things will start to look up.
But as a new year looms, county officials say the focus will be on promoting existing county assets like Murdock Village and the Enterprise Charlotte Airport Park, strengthening ties between the county and the local business community, and educating the public on economic development through a series of town hall meetings.
“We really need to have a workshop where we talk about economic development with the new commission and where we go from here,” said Commissioner Tricia Duffy. “We can’t survive with no jobs except working in restaurants and funeral homes and body shops.”
Duffy said the commission plans to meet with Economic Development Director Tom Patton early next year to discuss goals and priorities.
Patton said in 2012 his strategy was to be bold and aggressive, but after the public’s push-back on IMPAC, his plan is to go back to “basic economic development.”
“I try to keep expectations at the most reasonable level that I can keep them at,” Patton said. “I don’t want to create false impressions. But you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. I’m taking the approach that I and my staff are going to go out and aggressively promote the airport this year. That’s my objective.”
Patton said he also will seek direction from commissioners as to how they want to tackle Murdock Village — whether the county should develop it or whether it should be marketed to a master developer.
“There’s pros and cons both ways,” Patton said. “I have commissioners that want to promote the entire thing, and I have commissioners who want to invest and have us (the county) be the developer. I’m waiting for guidance because I don’t know. And you can’t do both.”