Mayor and Commission Meet with Economic Task Force Members in Athens, Ga.

A lack of effective leadership has held back Athens on economic development, a task force member said.

One thing emerged from Wednesday's meeting of the Mayor, Commission members, government staff and folks concerned about economic development in Athens Clarke County: Public money won't be flowing to a private entity.

Instead, said Commissioner Harry Sims, any economic development office funded with tax dollars will be part of the unified government--because public money means public accountabiity and transparency. Commissioners approve the budgets, and they answer to their constituents.

Many of those attending the meeting were members of the Mayor's Economic Development Task Force, a group of 25 or so people appointed in 2011 to come up with a plan for moving Athens Clarke County forward economically. There were also some people from the Economic Development Foundation.

After months of work, in September the task force gave the Mayor and Commission its plan for creating a center for economic development. Mayor Denson then appointed four comissioners to a committee to help determine what parts of the plan were feasible and how best to move forward. The group has now met three times.

A story in the Athens Banner Herald about an October meeting apparently angered and upset members of both the task force and the Economic Development Foundation. An email was circulated, encouraging them to attend Wednesday's meeting.

 a handful of professional staff and the press was packed with people. There were lots of passionate pleas and some finger pointing and backtracking. Some people said a professional economic developer wouldn't work for local government, but no one could explain to Commissioner Kathy Hoard why they believe this is the case.

Paul Chambers from AT&T, current chair of the Economic Develoment Foundation, urged the Commission to move slowly, but Commissioner Mike Hamby said the Commission has been moving slowly on economic development for 10 years and it's tme to speed up--before the contract expires in June for temporary director of the EDF, Peggy Chapman. The committee had hoped to vote in December on whether to raise taxes to support economic development efforts.

The upshot of the meeting is that there will be more meetings and discussions. Doc Eldridge, executive director and CEO of the Athes Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber will support whatever the Mayor and Commission decide.

After the meeting, Mayor Denson was asked why Athens voters should approve a tax increase that will earmark about $800,000 for economic development when the Commission wouldn't consider a tax increase to pay for, say, improved bus service, better maintained parks or more athletic and cultural programs?

"Because we're doing all kinds of things daily to improve the quality of life," she said. "We've got to make the pie bigger. Otherwise, those slices are going to be more expensive. If we don't increase the tax base, people are going to leave Athens and go to where it's cheaper to live."

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