Before Doc Eldridge, CEO and Executive Director of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, took his current job, he was an insurance executive, an Athens Clarke County Commissioner and Mayor of Athens Clarke County. His experience, he says, has given him first-hand knowledge of how the local government works.
Which is why he--and the Chamber Board--are supporting a move to create an office for economic development, fund it well and house it within the local government. His support places him at odds with some business people in town and with some members of the Economic Development Foundation, a body he helped create to bring businesses and jobs to Athens.
"The realization is that the commission is willing to fund economic development at a major level," said Eldridge. "They are going to be involved in accountability, as they should be, because this is the taxpayers' money."
In September, the Mayor's Economic Task Force presented a hefty document to the Mayor and Commission, outlining plans and priorities for improving the local economy. The report envisioned that a private agency would private major industries to Athens, using $1.5 million of public money.
Brian Broderick, outgoing President of the Chamber, said his board supports the recommendations in the report, but not the structure. "There's a lot of good in the [Mayor's Task Force] report, but the structure was unwieldy, and a lot of partners weren't at the table and weren't leveraged," he said. "I think it's really exciting the government is going to engage the chamber in the process."
An implementation group of ACC Commissioners decided instead to fund an in-house office of economic development with a tax increase that would generate about $600,000 to $700,000. The government is best suited for dealing with big employers, since it can provide the infrastructure and land they need.
Attorney Mike Morris, incoming president of the chamber, was a member of the Mayor's Task Force. He said the group looked at communities from all over the state, evaluating how they handle economic development. They had both the chamber and the Economic Development Foundation make presentations and offer ideas.
"There are plenty of ways to skin the economic cat," said Morris. "This is the way the commission is trying to do it, as far as industrial development industrial expansion. And they want to partner with other agencies. Where we're going to end up is in a good spot as far as a public-private partnership is concerned."
The commission is expected to vote in December on the proposal to make the office part of local government.