By REID TUCKER
City Councilman Mac Work has his email account set up so that he receives a notification any time the search term “DeFuniak Springs” is mentioned in published online. Lately, he said, his inbox stays full.
Work, who just a few months ago completed the first year of a four-year term, ran on a platform aimed at maximizing the city’s bottom line by courting new businesses and helping the existing business community, while also keeping city spending in check. Sitting in the garage office of his Bay Avenue home, surrounded by printouts and charts showing jobs figures and projected growth, and with the phone numbers of several incoming businesses, stores and restaurants scrawled on legal pads, it is clear he has indeed been busy in the past year.
The key to convincing businesses to set up shop in DeFuniak Springs is to make it as easy as possible for them to do so, he said. “If [a business] even whispers that they want to move to DeFuniak, they call me and I’ll call them right then,” Work said. “I’m the only person they need to call. I’ll walk them right through the whole process at city hall. [The Council] wants that process to be seamless.”
he imminent arrival of several national retailers such as Tractor Supply Company and Hibbit Sports means 170-plus new jobs will be created either as a result of hires or by the trickle-down effect of more money being injected into the local economy. According to figures provided by the Walton County Economic Development Alliance and based on data from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the seven businesses that committed to open in 2012 or have already opened since last year will ultimately generate an estimated output of $9,716,834.
Work said these figures reinforce something he’s believed for a long time: every little bit helps.
“I’ve always heard new money turns over four times,” Work said. “If you go out and spend your money here in town, then that money actually pays someone else’s salary. They in turn buy from a supplier and that supplier buys something else from another business. Basically, it all trickles down. Every new job has an economic impact.”
Tractor Supply Company and Hibbit Sports are in the process of receiving bids to renovate the building which formerly housed Marvin’s home improvement store, and Work said the total move-in time is usually limited to 60 days after opening bids, which means that the stores could be in operation by mid-September if not earlier. Taco Bell is also set to return to DeFuniak Springs after several years away, with its proposed location near the Army Aviation Center Federal Credit Union on U.S. 331 South currently being evaluated and prepped for construction.
Other future developments in Which work expressed interest include expanding the city’s municipal airport’s t-hangars by 32 to make way for that exact number of tenants waiting in the wings, among them an unmanned aerial vehicle assembly company with military and U.S. Customs contracts. Additionally, he hopes that the city’s 40-acre recreational complex on Gene Hurley Road can become the site of a new industrial park after the sports-related equipment at the complex is relocated to the Wee-Care Park following a deal with the Walton County School District. Finally, the vacant former site of the Louis Bear Company’s Anheuser-Busch distribution center on U.S. 90 is being eyed as housing another major company’s distribution in Northwest Florida, though Work said that plan is still in its initial phases.
Despite the influx of new businesses, Work said the real reason for the city’s positive cash flow are money-saving policy successes the Council achieved in the last year, among them a freeze on hiring, with no new positions being created since he and the other two new councilmen, Ron Kelley and Kermit Wright, took office. Furthermore, the Council voted to cut the general fund budget by $1 million and also to cut land taxes by half a mill as of last September. The councilmen kept land taxes from increasing, waived impact fees, passed a less-restrictive sign ordinance and stopped water and sewer rates from increasing.
However, all that came at a price. The city borrowed $1.5 million from reserves last year to give the taxpayers a holiday and Work said a way will have to be found to replace that money this year if the city is to stay in the black. The solution to the problem, he said, is compressed natural gas.
One of Work’s main thrusts during his most recent tenure on the Council has been bringing a compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station to DeFuniak Springs for the use of local government entities and private citizens alike. Though the dollar amount of installing such a fueling station will not be finalized until one of the city’s engineering firms completes a currently ongoing study of the proposed site on U.S. 83, the potential benefits of CNG means it could quickly pay for itself. Work figures that if the city, county and school district will all agree to convert their fleet vehicles to run on CNG (which would be sold to private customers at roughly half the price per gallon of gasoline) it could save Walton County’s taxpayers almost $2 million per year in fuel costs alone.
In addition to the monetary benefit, CNG offers many other advantages over petroleum-based fuels. It burns hotter and cleaner, which means longer engine life and less pollution, and it has next to no impact on either efficiency or power, while being more plentiful than fossil fuels, which is always a plus when the city spent approximately a quarter-million dollars alone on fuel last year. Furthermore, DeFuniak Springs owns the right to sell natural gas to customers, meaning it is conceivable that residents could one day fill up their cars at home without ever having to use a fueling station….
Read the full story in the July 19, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.