The meeting was heavily attended. All PEDC members were present: Gene Valentino, Sam Hall, Century Mayor Freddie McCall, Comm. Kevin White, Councilwoman Maren DeWeese, Mort O’Sullivan, Collier Merrill, and Rhette Anderson. Blaise Adams participated over a speaker phone.
The meeting was held in the training room on the fourth floor of the Escambia County Office Complex. It was standing room only. In the audience were City Manager Al Coby, County Administrator Bob McLaughlin, Chamber Pres. Evon Emerson, Pensacola Mayor Mike Wiggins, Comm. Wilson Robertson, PNJ: Kevin Doyle, Dick Schneider and Jamie Page, Jim Reeves, Joe Gilchrist, John Griffing, Jane Birdwell, Bo Johnson, Nancy Fetterman, John Panyko, Dick Baker, Neal Nash, Janice Kilgore, George Touart, Justin Beck, Charles Wood, Meredith Robinson, Ed Schroeder and others that I couldn’t see clearly from my seat.
Both Valentino and Hall opened the meeting with remarks about Sunshine Law. Gene read a prepared statement from his attorney that made it clear the PEDC has no authority to approve or disapprove the ED plans and that the sole authority to do so lies with the BOCC and the Pensacola City Council.
Hall admitted that he may have unintentionally violated Sunshine laws in discussions with Comm. Valentino and Mort O’Sullivan. I asked O’Sullivan after the meeting what was Hall talking about. O’Sullivan said that he had discussions with Hall about the Chamber plan back in March, but never had any reason to believe that the County Commission would ever send the plans to the PEDC for discussion.
“It wasn’t until two weeks ago when Wilson (Commissioner Wilson Robinson) made the motion for Gene and I to discuss the plans at the next PEDC meeting that the PEDC was ever in the picture,” O’Sullivan said.
After that, the discussion was awkward between Mort and Gene. It was as if they were speaking two different languages and Gene wasn’t really listening. Even when the Chamber plan was passed, Gene didn’t really seem to understand that his plan was off the table.
All the buzz words were being used that we’ve heard before–elastic, transparency, visibility, accountability, cooperation and consensus–but nothing had really changed in either plan.
Valentino didn’t propose a different PEDA structure as I had been told that he might. Mort asked him if he had made any changes to his plan since he first presented it in May. Valentino said that the only difference was that he wanted to emphasize the private investment more.
At the BOCC workshop last month, Valentino had given his commissioners the impression that he had modified his plan based on public input.
As I listened, it became apparent that Gene wanted a public board (PEDA) setting policy for economic development but a professional staff that didn’t operate in the Sunshine. Mort wanted a board (Greater Pensacola Partnership) that was more actively involved in the economic development work that operated outside of the Sunshine so that two or three board members could get on a plane and visit a hot prospect.
Mort felt the public and Sunshine should be involved in the granting of incentive funds. Gene wanted the PEDA to do it and may even eventually replace the PEDC.
The compromise–although Gene might not see as that- was to have the Economic Development board and staff operate outside of the Sunshine to recruit and negotiate with prospects and have the PEDC board be the public/Sunshine entity to handle the incentive dollars. This is what the PEDC recommended for the BOCC to consider.
Gene didn’t see the value in the board members being involved with prospects—he never said this directly, but kept skipping over this point. He really didn’t have role of the business community in recruiting prospects.
Mort was adamant that the business leaders want to meet with business leaders.
When Mort tried to point that one of the examples for economic development success that Gene likes to use –Mobile– has the very structure that the Chamber is proposing, Gene started to raise his voice and said that he had never cited Mobile as an example and the only reason that Mobile County Commissioner Steve Nodine sat at his side at the June BOCC workshop was to tell the BOCC about different funding mechanisms they have in Mobile (few of which are available for use in our county). Gene did regain his composure.
Matt Fiebig, who chairs the Economic Development committee for the Pensacola Young Professionals, spoke during the public input segment to say the PYP did not feel that it had a fair chance to have a voice in the process (even though two of its members served on the Chamber study committee, Justin Beck and Lumon May) and that PYP wanted more detail and more public input. He expressed concern over the lack of a unified vision.
These comments were in sync with similar statements by Gene on the need to reach out to the outlining community. He said the people have hesitated to invest in economic development because they didn’t believe that they would have a say.