by David Chapman
Brian Teeple has been promoting the idea of regionalism for Northeast Florida for more than 20 years.
“I’ve been selling the idea for most of my career,” he said. “Up until recently, it was like trying to sell ice cream to Eskimos.”
It’s only been the past several years he’s truly seen a slight paradigm shift from the “me first” attitude toward a more regional thinking approach.
Teeple is the longtime chief executive director of the Northeast Florida Regional Council, an agency formed in 1977 via an interlocal agreement by and between Baker, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns counties. The regional organization originated from the former Jacksonville Area Planning Board of the City and provides perspective and opportunity for local governments to resolve their issues and problems on a multitude of levels that go beyond their individual boundaries.
“In an economy such as this, I think people begin to realize that issues and problems really don’t stop at their borders,” said Teeple. “What happens in one area can affect others in another area, and it really helps on many levels if people work together.”
It’s one of 11 such regional councils in Florida and 547 across the country, and is governed locally by a 35-member board of directors composed by elected officials and gubernatorial appointees as well as four ex-officio nonvoting members.
“We are involved in quite a lot over here,” said Teeple, but like many other organizations affected by the economy, “we just wish we had more money to do it.”
Teeple and the Council staff of just over 20 — down from 33 last year — have their, as Teeple refers to them, “tentacles” in several affiliated organizations through its three-pronged division of Emergency Preparedness, Planning and Strategic Initiatives along with Transportation and Community Development.
The latest item that most people might recognize is Reality Check First Coast visioning exercise, under the planning and Strategic Initiatives area, that brought more than 300 community, business and government officials from all seven counties together to help determine how and where the area should grow. The “Game Day” exercise had the officials using Legos and yarn — representing both population and business growth along with transportation and preservation areas, respectively — to create Northeast Florida regional models.
One shouldn’t be fooled by the toys used in the process, though. Such data is analyzed and could be used as part of the update to the Council’s Strategic Regional Policy Plan required by Florida’s growth management laws.
The “Game Day” exercise just scratches the surface of the Council’s reach.
There’s the work of Northeast Florida Local Emergency Planning Committee IT staff, which is doing its part for regional evacuation routes as part of a combined statewide effort. Results should make such evacuations in the face of impending crises more efficient throughout the state.
Then there’s the work of the Northeast Florida Regional Leadership Academy, which takes members of the public and private sector from seven counties to educate them on the benefits of regional thinking. Following the upcoming graduation, the program will have around 115 graduates in its history.
It works with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in emergency preparedness on the Regional Domestic Task Force, created by then-Gov. Jeb Bush following Sept. 11, and helps create training simulations of potential terrorist-style attacks. The local Council heads such efforts across the state.
The Council also heads the review of all Developments of Regional Impact — any development that due to its magnitude, character or location would have a substantial effect on the health, safety or welfare of citizens of more than one county — and approves them. In its history and of its seven counties, the Council has approved close to 181,000 residential units, 39.4 million square feet of retail, 88.3 million square feet of office and 48.2 million square feet of industrial space.
In regards to such projects and planning the region as a whole, the looming issue of Hometown Democracy seems problematic to Teeple. With a “not in my backyard” and overall antigrowth mentality by some voters, it can often defy the benefits of regional thinking.
“It’s hard to build a community when the fabric of the community has holes in it,” he said, regarding potential future planned projects getting shot down.
Regardless if it passes or not, Teeple and the Council’s work will still go on as planned with the betterment of Northeast Florida in mind.
“One of the greatest things for me is when I’m out talking about the concept and I see the light bulb go off in their head,” he said. “They begin to see that ‘Wow, this really can benefit us all.’”
More light bulbs are going off and the tide has slowly begun to turn in the way of thinking, acting and working together — something that has made his job enjoyable for more than 20 years.
“I have the best job in Northeast Florida,” he said, smiling.