By ALICIA LEONARD
With the unanimous approval of a three-year, $15,396 per year commitment from the DeFuniak Springs City Council on Jan. 26, the Walton County Economic Development Alliance (WCEDA) put one of its last ground level building blocks into place.
Questions abound about this new alliance and its purpose for Walton County citizens. WCEDA outlined their mission in their strategic plan for 2008-2009, “The WCEDA is a result of many community leaders representing a broad range of public/private organizations. The plan seeks to build upon the county/cities economic assets and overcome its challenges.”
This private/public partnership will serve the Walton County area. Founded in 2008 by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), the city governments of DeFuniak Springs, Paxton, Freeport and the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce. “The organization is a 501c(3) non-profit organization, housed-in and managed by the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce, but guided and lead by the WCEDA board of directors.”
The organization made up of county, city and local business leaders will attempt to “increase employment and educational opportunities, facilitate growth and expansion of industry and business, improve the quality of life for all residents, grow the tax base, further promote and develop the downtown areas and position Walton County as a great place to live, work, and do business.”
BCC and WCEDA Chair Sara Comander spoke to the DeFuniak Springs City Council during the Jan. 26 meeting and expressed some thoughts on Walton County and its need for economic stability. “Originally, City Manager Kim Kirby invited me and Ronnie Bell to travel with her and Councilman James Huffman to Marianna and see how Jackson County has been so successful in their effort to bring business to their county,” she said. “We realized from that point that we would get nowhere without the cities and county being united in one voice that says, if a business moves to Freeport, it will still benefit the whole of the county. We had to come together to say we will make it happen and we have done that. From local leaders to leaders representing the Walton County School Board, we have come together to make this happen.”
Comander also mentioned the existing Economic Development Council of Walton County (EDC) in her address to the Council, “They have done a lot of hard work and, hopefully, we can pick up from where they are and move forward, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work and some time.”
EDC representative Dewayne Youngblood concurred. “As you know the EDC a few months back became property managers. We are managing the industrial park in Freeport and during that same time, this group came together,” he said. “They have done a fantastic job putting this group together. Most importantly, they did a great job in structuring this group so it will continue to grow and have funding, that we hope will represent the county with one single economic voice. I think that is the most important thing this group can do. In the past, business owners looking to move here or start a business didn’t have just one voice to work with. This group can unify the county and represent the county when it comes to economic development. The EDC has projects going on, but we do recognize the need for this one voice.”
Youngblood told the Council that the EDC has a board that will vote on joining with the WCEDA and he believes that the new group has their support, but many on the EDC board wanted to see funding put into place and an executive director hired before making a decision. “I believe the EDC will fully support the WCEDA and we will have that one voice representing Walton County. We have to be able to act quickly. We are competing with other locations throughout the world and when someone inquires about putting their business here, we need to be able to respond quickly, with one voice and not have any confusion, no matter where they want to locate in the county.”
Some high-points of the WCEDA strategic plans involve business retention and expansion, downtown revitalization, streamlining the building and development process, industrial development, workforce development, entrepreneurship and technology, support internships development through schools and industry, development funding, marketing and communication.
The need for new business and existing business to be supported for growth are cornerstones of the WCEDA plan. The WCEDA is now in the process of seeking an executive director to aggressively seek out new business to bring into the county and start a supportive dialogue with already existing business. “We are advertising for that position right now,” said Comander. “In these hard economic times, we are made keenly aware that we cannot put all of our eggs in one basket. Tourism is a wonderful and a driving force in our county right now, but we would like to feel like we are diversified and our people have choices of where to work and where to live and this alliance will make this possible.”