By REID TUCKER
Note: This story is the first of a multi-part series derived from interviews with the members of the DeFuniak Springs City Council. This week’s article comes from an interview with Councilman Ron Kelley, while pieces in upcoming editions will profile other city councilmen.
The past year has been a big one for DeFuniak Springs’ business community, and the imminent arrival of several big-name retailers makes a strong case for the growth-minded attitude at City Hall.
The city also elected three new councilmen, Ron Kelley, Mac Work and Kermit Wright, all of whom who placed economic development high up on their list of priorities when they took office about a year ago. Kelley said the election results made clear that the voters wanted to see city government take a more progressive stance in regard to growing the local economy and that the recent uptick in new businesses opening is proof of the merits of that change.
“I think what the people were hungering for when they elected Mr. Work, Mr. Wright and I was a new attitude – a can-do attitude instead of the cannot-do attitude that seemed to be prevailing,” he said. “I think we’ve shown that with the community’s support we can continue move the city forward into a new period of growth and prosperity.”
The keys to achieving that prosperity are jobs and new development, Kelley said. Though the aforementioned big name retail stores, Tractor Supply Company, Hibbett Sports and Taco Bell, will likely lead the way in the area of job creation (to the tune of an estimated 100-150 jobs), Kelley said small businesses in the area have already begun to follow suit. Several such businesses, ranging from tanning salons to restaurants to outdoor equipment retailers, opened in the last year but have mainly filled existing but vacant properties. Tractor Supply Company and Hibbett Sports will take the same tact, as they are set to renovate and occupy the former site of the Marvin’s hardware store in the Walton Commons shopping plaza.
Kelley, who was elected in April of 2011, said the City Council has done its part by aggressively recruiting businesses to move to the area and by passing a moratorium on impact fees and a newer, less restrictive sign ordinance. Furthermore, cash incentives from Gulf Power have helped attract new businesses fill empty buildings around town. While these openings are welcome, Kelley said real economic growth means an increase in the number of people put to work and that means bringing in new industry altogether, not simply filling in the gaps.
Kelley pointed to the unfinished and unoccupied industrial park in Mossy Head as an example of what happens when some but not all resources are in place to receive the kinds of firms that would otherwise make use of a prime location. What is needed to bring in companies, especially those capable of hiring lots of workers, such as manufacturing or distribution firms, is land development and updated infrastructure, he said.
“When it comes to growth you’re either going forward or you’re going backward,” Kelley said. “Part of the problem is that we try to apply short-term fixes to long-term problems, knowing that we’re kicking the can down the road. You’ve got to think long-term. If we have an industrial park then we can have industry. If we don’t offer it then just down the highway there will be a community who will gladly do it just to have that industry move in there.” Looking ahead to his next three years on the City Council, Kelley said projects to update the city’s infrastructure will continue to be a priority for him. However, he said replacing the remaining ceramic water and sewer pipes and repaving streets are only steps in the right direction, as the real opportunities for diversifying the city’s business portfolio will come only when the Florida Department of Transportation’s U.S. 331 widening project is completed.
Kelley said the local economy is poised to take off like never before once that long-sought goal is achieved within a few years’ time, but the specters of urban sprawl brought on by the possible explosion of new industry do not seem to bother Kelley much. The U.S. 331 project is not guaranteed to begin until at least 2015, though it may start before then if state funds are freed up. He said the city is poised to sidestep the a potential problems associated with a large increase in the number of people or businesses moving in because, unlike other nearby communities, DeFuniak Springs is neither overbuilt nor short on time to expand infrastructure to meet the city’s needs.
What is more, Kelley does not believe that expanding the city’s economic base necessarily means doing away with one of DeFuniak’s greatest assets: its longstanding cultural heritage and small-town atmosphere.
“We may need to put a fresh coat of paint on a building, but we’re not going to change the character of the community wholesale,” Kelley said. “I believe we can both maintain and preserve that [character] while still bringing in new business. I see good things ahead for us. We’ve got room to grow, we’ve got time and we have a positive attitude toward business in government. All of those things together give me a lot of confidence for our future.”