By BEN GRAFTON
At the Walton County Economic Development Alliance (EDA) Board meeting of Feb. 2 in the County Administration Building, Managing Director Scarlett Phaneuf reported that a formal letter of resignation from board member Neal Wade has been received, but that no recommendations for a replacement have been submitted by this board. The only other nomination is that of Ed Gardner, Power South Economic Development Representative, a resident of south Walton who has said he is willing to serve. A motion to appoint Gardner to the board was approved.
In other business: board member Lori Kelley presented the financial report for the Walton County Economic Development Council (EDC) Business Park Fund, for which there was little activity, and for the EDA. The EDA receives financial support from Walton County, and the cities of DeFuniak Springs, Freeport and Paxton. In January EDA supporting funds were received from the county and from the city of Paxton. Money is on hand to start doing the things that the organization has budgeted for this year.
According to Phaneuf, the city of Freeport has approved its local agreement and its funding agreement and will remit its EDA supporting funds upon receipt of an invoice. Plans were in place to present both agreements to the DeFuniak Springs City Council on Jan. 23, but because of feedback, the presentation has been delayed until the scheduled Feb. 13 meeting, thus providing more time to speak to Council members.
Phaneuf informed the board that Jim Breitenfeld of the Okaloosa County EDC who heads up the five-county (Escambia, Santa Rose, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay) Northwest Florida Defense Coalition that supports military activities in this area, contacted Kitty Whitney of the Walton Area Chamber about a February forum in Miami. He thinks the Coalition should have a presence at the forum where the full sponsorship is $5,000. He has asked each of the counties to contribute $1,000 toward the sponsorship. Whitney has asked EDA to bear a $500 share of the cost. The board approved sharing the cost with the Chamber.
Phaneuf told the board that Southern Wines and Spirits has delayed selecting a contractor for their project to locate a facility in Freeport because cost estimates were higher than anticipated. They are waiting for engineering revisions before they choose a contractor. A 90-day delay is projected.
Phaneuf also reported that Waste Management has signed a one year renewal on the lease where they are currently located. So, they will be making plans to expand later this year.
Board Attorney Clay Adkinson broached the subject of a policy decision to decide whether to sell, lease or give away land to promote job creation. He informed the board that feedback from two members indicated that a hybrid policy between sell and lease was preferred and that appraisals of property should be done beforehand. He told the board that cost issues when land is given away should be considered and that the issue of “tire kickers” looking to get something for nothing should be addressed. Another issue to be addressed is a provision for approving, by a unanimous or super majority vote of the board, proposals deemed good for Walton County, but which do not meet the state’s qualified industries criteria.
Phaneuf introduced the subject of applying for a USDA Rural Development grant to conduct a study to identify which of the state’s targeted industries are a good fit for Walton County resources. Dr. Louis McDaniel thinks a study of this type would cost $50,000. USDA probably would contribute about $10,000 and there would probably be an in-kind match of $10,000 from the University of West Florida’s (UWF) Haas Center. EDA’s cost would then be as much as $30,000. In addition to the Haas Center, Florida State University’s (FSU) Center for Economic Forecasts and Analysis does this kind of work.
A motion to get quotes from the Haas Center and the Center for Economic Forecasts for the cost of a study to identify industries that fit Walton County’s resources was approved.
Phaneuf reported that work is still active on the brewery and the small chemical manufacturing plant projects. EDA has helped the companies proposing these projects to submit applications to UWF as cash incentive economic development projects. This is the first time UWF has administered applications of this type. Progress is slow and the clients are frustrated. A resolution to delays may come within the month.
According to Phaneuf the Board of County Commissioners’ ability to offer ad-valorem tax abatement to new and expanding businesses expired in 2010. To reinstate the program, it must be approved in a voter referendum. It could be added to the ballot for the August primary or for the November general election. The board will consider this issue and decide what action to take at the next meeting.