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Photo by Joe Wilhelm Jr. - Panelists at the JAXUSA Partnership Economic Development Forum on Friday at the University of North Florida Herbert University Center were (from left) Jay Morris, St. Johns County Commission chair; Bill Bishop, Jacksonville ...
Jax Daily Record Monday, Mar. 25, 201312:00 PM EST

Northeast Florida leaders ask for clearer economic picture

by: Joe Wilhelm Jr.

Government leaders from six Northeast Florida counties provided positive outlooks for their areas, but some discussed how their economic development could expand if a clear fiscal policy was presented by the federal government.

"Almost everything that has a meaningful, substantive effect on our local economy is happening in Washington (D.C.) having to do with fiscal and monetary policy that's going on in Congress, and until they fix that problem, we're all going to be fumbling around because businesses aren't expanding the way they need to," said Bill Bishop, Jacksonville City Council president.

"(Businesses have) got cash. They just don't want to do anything with it because they have no confidence in where the national economic policy is going," said Bishop.

Bishop participated in a panel discussion Friday at a JAXUSA Partnership Regional Economic Development Forum at the University of North Florida Herbert University Center.

The panel comprised Jay Morris, St. Johns County Commission chair; Jimmy Anderson, Baker County Commission vice chair; Barbara Revels, Flagler County commissioner and Economic Opportunity Advisory Council member; Danny Leeper, Nassau County Commission chair; and Doug Conkey, Clay County commissioner and Clay County Chamber of Commerce president. The discussion was moderated by Fredrik Eliasson, chief financial officer and executive vice president of CSX Corp. and JAXUSA Partnership Business Development chair.

Conkey agreed with Bishop's call for more accountability from the federal government and used the energy industry as an example.

The years of permitting it takes to receive approval for a nuclear plant can deter energy providers from investing in a plant, he said.

"Your energy providers are saying, 'I'm not going to make the investment because I could be millions or billions into the project and all of a sudden a new administration comes in and says, 'I don't buy into that, thanks for the investment, but we aren't going there.' (The federal government) needs to come up with some sustainable, long-term policies," said Conkey.

Eliasson shifted from his role as moderator to offer insight from a CSX perspective why businesses aren't spending or expanding.

"One of things we would say from a business development perspective is the pipeline of projects that we are seeing is probably as healthy as we have seen for a long period of time," said Eliasson.

"If we get some certainty, if we get some sort of path to fiscal restraints, I think you will see a lot more companies actually starting to pull the trigger again," said Eliasson.

Each county leader presented the state of his or her county.

Bill Bishop, Jacksonville City Council president

"Unemployment is down. Housing starts are up. Ad valorem revenue total is basically flat, which is an improvement from declining the last few years. Total public employment is down. That is good from a budgetary standpoint, it's not necessarily good from a standpoint of delivering services, but in the same token it's what businesses have to do in a down economy. Everybody has to right-size, and you have to do more with less. You learn from it and we all end up with a better result in the end because it does squeeze out waste," Bishop said.

He also discussed the streamlined economic development approval process approved by Council and talked about two upcoming deals filed last week.

"One is Deutsche Bank wants to add 300 people to their Jacksonville facility, which is rapidly becoming a major economic player. The other is a small company called Corys Thunder, a high-tech, industrial-testing simulator company that does a lot with nuclear power plants and railroads. Northeast Florida is going to be their national expansion headquarters."

Jay Morris, St. Johns County Commission chair

"Since the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, we have cut spending by $166 million over the last five years. The administration has cut just about every line item in the budget, we've reduced divisions from 34 down to 12, we've built reserves by $8 million over the last year and we are building reserves, not living off reserves."

Morris talked about the county's economic development director who works with the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council.

The county also has partnered with the University of North Florida to open a small business development center in St. Johns County that has worked with more than 250 applicants and created 60 small businesses, he said.

Danny Leeper, Nassau County Commission chair

"You'll probably hear the same message from most of us, we are having to do more with less. Over the last six years, our ad valorem revenue has shrunk from $53 million to $42 million. We have cut 68 positions," Leeper said.

"I'd like to think the state of Nassau County is good today and will be better tomorrow. The unemployment rate continues to go down and property values have seemed to stabilize. We are seeing a slow but steady recovery in the construction industry," he said.

He said the Nassau County board of county commissioners eliminated transportation concurrency from the county's comprehensive plan in 2012 and created a citizen task force to study the potential for a mobility-fee system to take its place, much like Duval, Pasco and Alachua counties. He said the task force should complete its work and submit its presentation to the board by the end of this month.

Barbara Revels, Flagler County commissioner

"Flagler County is celebrating its first year with its economic development team that the county commission appointed. We are getting ready to start on our strategic plan and are rolling out our new website," she said.

"We have a lot of business prospects that we are working on, however, we are hoping to be able to announce two in a week to two weeks. One will bring at least 300 jobs in manufacturing design, as well as another that is more in the school basis. They will both be airport-related. One will be air-site activity. The other will be both in the airport and off the airport," she said.

Unemployment has been reduced over the past year and construction is rebounding with single-family permits, she said. There has been little commercial construction, but a "great deal" of commercial development in the past year has been mostly related to restaurants, she said.

Doug Conkey, Clay County commissioner

"The focus of our efforts is to create economic development, create jobs in Clay County," he said.

He said one master-planned community, Governors Park, has "changed the paradigm of its phases of development."

He said in the first five years of development, there are no homes allowed.

"You will create jobs. You will create a commercial, industrial area before we allow you to build homes. Let's create the jobs before we allow people to build homes and leave the area for jobs," he said.

He said the county's budget last year is $10 million less than the previous year and taxable value is down 2.5 percent from previous years, or 28 percent over the past five years. He said the county also has reduced its workforce by 25 percent.

As for economic development, he said the county has received recent inquiries into aviation, manufacturing, health care, business services and retail.

Jimmy Anderson, Baker County Commission vice chair

Anderson said Baker County is one of the smallest counties but doing well and "trying to do a lot more with a lot less."

"Our biggest provider of jobs is government. We have state hospitals and prisons, stuff that the big counties don't want, they send them to Baker County," he said.

He said it is tough for small counties to compete for jobs when they don't have the infrastructure to offer companies that the wealthier counties have.

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