Home Money Development council presents annual report to the city, lacks concrete numbers

Development council presents annual report to the city, lacks concrete numbers

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The Athens County Economic Development Council identified the projects and activities it worked on during the past year along with funds received from federal and state grants such as the US EPA grant of $400,000, according to an annual report presented to City Council. However the report could not produce many tangible numbers in regards to job creation or business growth.

The report addresses the annual programs, US EPA grant funding — facilitated through the Athens County Port Authority which was established by the Athens County Commissioner in order to foster economic development in the area — and EB-5 funding which was created by Congress in the early 1990s to spur economic development in rural and distressed communities.

Members of council showed mixed emotions about the report as it demonstrated a lack of communication between the two parties: the development council and the city. An example of this miscommunication is the issue of renewing the development council’s contract with the city, a renewal that was supposed to take place this year. However the new executive director, Sara Marrs-Maxfield, was unaware of the fact.

“We do a lot of supporting of economic development within the city. We want to continue to do that and we don’t want to get in the way,” Fourth Ward Rep. Christine Fahl said after the presentation.

Despite the programs and funding resources being laid out in the report and on the development council’s website, the report lacks concrete numbers describing where the council has seen the most improvement and where exactly it is allocating its funding. Marrs-Maxfield said that this is because the organization puts a bigger emphasis on job retention and infrastructure.

The development council, also known as Business Remixed, is a public-private partnership which encourages entrepreneurship and helps existing businesses grow and expand. The council primarily focuses on four target industries: sustainable energy, information technology, speciality and craft food manufacturing, and healthcare and biotechnology. However, City Council demonstrated concern about the local music and tourism scene not receiving enough help and funding.

“In my opinion, we do have a thriving entrepreneur art and music scene here in the community and I know they would welcome and could definitely benefit from more professional guidance here in the community,” First Ward Rep. Kent Butler said at the meeting. “I definitely applaud the other acknowledged areas that you are targeting and I think we have a niché market there as well.”

Second Ward Rep. Jeffrey Risner was also raising concerns about the deal the city made with CGI, one of the largest IT and business process services firms in the world, in 2012. The deal was that the city would provide the corporation with a tax abatement under the condition that the company produce 150 jobs by 2016.

“Do you know why they haven’t upheld their end of the bargain they made with [City] Council?” Risner said. “I drive by there quite a bit, and the parking lot looks pretty empty to me. I don’t see 150 employees there, more like 15 — at the most. Where is that going?”

Marrs-Maxfield said there are a number of reasons for this. First, the corporation has yet to take the abatement because they do not believe they are secure in this location to take it. Second, the deal continues until 2016, so they still have time before they need to have produced all 150 jobs. And finally, the development council can only try to help businesses; “it is really up to the company to perform,” Marrs-Maxfield said at the meeting.

The Council began in January 2009, prior to the start of the recession, which lead to an uphill battle to see results in the county’s economic development.

“Since 2009 I’ve seen a huge change in the way that all these different resources communicate off of one another so there are a lot more efforts out there by different organizations, and we have become a much more cohesive entrepreneurial ecosystem over the last few years,” Marrs-Maxfield said in a phone interview. “We’ve been able to attract some new business here; we’ve been able to help some businesses that have challenges staying here either retaining their employees or expanding.”

“Traditionally our organization has been focused on a lot of businesses that are already here because we know that over[sic] 80 percent of job creation occurs through the businesses that already exist in the community. So by connecting with those businesses we are helping them gain access to programs who are in the best position of add jobs,” Marrs-Maxfield said. “We don’t create the jobs but we do our best to create an environment in which jobs are created.”

The organization does this by sitting down with local businesses and going over data and tools available to them in order to expand.

Marrs-Maxfield spoke specifically about the “Start It Up Athens” campaign, a grant and storytelling competition which offers $10,000 to one business and three cash prizes of $5,000 to winning storytellers. While she could not identify specific numbers, Marrs-Maxfield elaborated on the positive reaction toward the program from the community.

“The very first [grant] was to Jackie-O’s to help them open their bottling and canning facilities down on Stimson,” Marrs-Maxfield said. “We know that that contributed to job creation and we definitely got some positive benefits out of that in the community and beyond and since then there have been many organizations that have contacted me wanting to start a similar program.”

This year the council received five applicants for the “Start It Up” campaign. The organization is in the process of trying to trademark the competitive grant due to its success.

Looking into the future, Marrs-Maxfield wants to continue to put an emphasis in supporting local entrepreneurs.

“You’re not going to be making progress unless the businesses that are there are at least retaining their jobs. If there is a leak, you need to plug it and then you need to fix it permanently and then you need to fix it so then you can fill it more,” Marrs-Maxfield said.

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