After brief debate, the Athens Clarke Commission voted to create and fund a department of economic development, housed within local government and reporting to the county manager. The vote was 9 to 1, with Commissioner Doug Lowry dissenting.
According to the ordinance passed at Tuesday night's meeting,
The purpose of the Department of Economic Development is to be the primary point of contact for industries, large commercial developments, site location consultants, and state economic development organizations interested in developing, expanding, or locating new or expanded businesses in Athens-Clarke County.
The ordinance's passage comes about a year after Mayor Denson appointed more than 20 people to a Mayor's Task Force on Economic Development. The group met regularly for months before handing the Commission a hefty report last September about spurring economic growth in Athens.
A Commission committee, charged with refinging those recommendations, accepted some and rejected others. Immediately rejected was the idea of creating a private entity to do economic development while funding it with public money. Committee members said if economic development is funded with public money, it should have public oversight and should remain in-house.
The ordinance includes a long list of duties--which appear at the end of this article--but what it doesn't include concerns Commissioner Jerry NeSmith. He said the ordinance addresses only the needs of manufacturing, while neglecting other business sectors, including art festivals, movies, healthcare and jobs and retirement services.
"There's no strategic plan addressing the full scope of business," NeSmith said. Nor does the ordinance provide for an ombudsman or set up an advisory committee, made up of capable citizens, when so many people are willing to serve, he said. He wants all the recommendations of the task force to be considered.
Commissioner Kelly Girtz said that some aspects of the task force report aren't include in the ordinance. He, too, would like a citizen advisory body to look at economic development. He looks "forward to seeing what develops down the road," he said.
"You'll be seeing additional legislation and discussion," said Commissioner Kathy Hoard. "The report that came from the task force is still something we are perusing. It's a 27-page document."
Funding the new department through the end of June 30 will be money--$95,000--from the hotel-motel tax that used to go to the Economic Development Foundation and cash from the economic development capital projects account.
The Commission committee had recommended funding the department to the tune of $700,000, paid for with a half mil increase in property taxes. Commissioners will decide during upcoming budget negotiations what should be the exact amount of money alloted to the new department.
The functions, duties, services, and responsibilities of the Department of Economic Development are as follows:
Identify and recruit economic development opportunities that support and enhance Athens-Clarke County’s quality of life, increase the tax base, and provide opportunities for sustained, livable wages for workers;
Provide site location assistance to domestic and international companies planning new or expanded facilities; assistance shall include but not be limited to identifying financial and human resources available to support such developments;
Develop an aggressive marketing plan to promote the competitive advantages of to businesses and industries of choosing to locate in Athens-Clarke County;
Develop and support a business and industrial retention/expansion program focused on businesses and industries currently operating within Athens-Clarke County;
Develop an Economic Development Incentive Program, to be approved by the Mayor and Commission, that the Department shall be authorized to use unilaterally during its recruitment efforts;
Coordinate with the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce for the purpose of supporting the Chamber’s efforts for development and retention of local entrepreneurial commercial businesses and for the purpose of receiving assistance with economic development recruitment efforts managed by the Department;
Create project specific Community Sales Teams to assist and advise the Department in recruiting potential economic development projects. These Community Sales Teams are anticipated to be composed of persons affiliated with local businesses/manufacturing, health care providers, educational institutions, utilities, business development organizations, construction trades, property developers/real estate professionals, the creative arts, and tourism/hospitality groups, and other appropriate entities;
Provide staff support for the Mayor and Commission’s efforts to Review review and analyze the recommendations listed in Section VII of the Mayor’s Economic Development Task Force Strategic Plan dated September 11, 2012 concerning zoning and design standards for industrial and commercial development, for the purpose of developing possible recommendations for Mayor and Commission approval of for possible ordinance changes that will mitigate barriers to quality economic development without compromising Athens-Clarke County community values;
Develop and maintain a current inventory of facilities and properties available for industrial/business development; develop recommendations for strategies to meet emerging infrastructure and natural resource needs to support future industrial and business development; and
Sign confidentiality agreements with prospective businesses in pursuit of the Department’s recruitment efforts as approved by the Manager and in accordance with the Georgia Open Records Act.
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