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City Pages

Some high-powered business executives are fighting a plan to put economic development under Athens-Clarke County government control, but the county commission is likely to move forward next week anyway.

Representatives from several existing economic development groups—including the Economic Development Foundation, Industrial Development Authority and Mayor Nancy Denson’s task force—sat down with commissioners earlier this month to complain about commissioners’ proposal to dissolve the independent EDF and put economic development under County Manager Alan Reddish. Their concerns included politicizing the process and finding a six-figure professional to recruit industries who is willing to work for a government salary. The task force had recommended replacing the EDF with a similar but smaller board not beholden to government. When businesspeople heard commissioners had something else in mind, “the vast majority expressed concern,” EDF Chairman Paul Chambers, an AT&T district manager, said.

Companies looking to locate in Athens want to work with other businesspeople, not government officials, said EDF Executive Director Peggy Chapman, who advocated putting the IDA, a bond-issuing authority appointed by the commission, in charge of economic development.

“Whatever you do, the private sector has to be involved,” she said.

As several commissioners noted, Caterpillar dealt directly with Reddish when it decided to build a plant on the Oconee County line. The commission has to approve roads, sewer lines and land purchases for new industries, anyway, they said. And they argue that, since the plan also involves boosting the EDF’s tax funding to $600,000 to $700,000, they need to have oversight.

“The point of bringing it in-house is so the taxpayers hold us accountable,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said.

Chambers said he appreciates the additional funding. “Compared to other communities, we are very, very underfunded,” Chambers said. “Anything we can do to change that is good.”

But why not spend that money on parks or roads or other quality-of-life initiatives, which Caterpillar cited as a reason for moving to Athens? ACC needs to expand the tax base first, Mayor Nancy Denson said. “We’ve got to make the pie bigger or a slice will cost everybody more,” she said.

Commissioners also promised that the new staff person would work with private businesses, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the state Economic Development Department and other entities. “I don’t think any thought was given to eliminating those kinds of partnerships,” Commissioner Kathy Hoard said.

And they have said that the new position won’t be a political one. “None of the commissioners want to micromanage this person,” Commissioner Andy Herod told the EDF Nov. 12. “They’ll report to the county manager.”

Local governments doing economic development is not unheard of. Oconee County does it that way, although that county is much smaller and coordination is easier. “It’s worked well for us, from my perspective,” Commission Chairman Melvin Davis said. “We may be unique in that regard.”

Only five counties in Georgia oversee economic development, according to local Georgia Power executive Len Chandler. He said it’s not working in DeKalb County, but when Commissioner Mike Hamby pointed out that it seems to work in Oconee County, Chandler replied, “I’m not here to stand in judgement of what Oconee County does.”

Attendees at the Nov. 7 meeting spent a good chunk of time pointing fingers. Chapman bemoaned the lack of communication among various economic development groups, but chamber President Doc Eldridge said they talk all the time. Eldridge and EDF board member Jinx Patel also accused each other of not taking the lead in raising private funds for the EDF.

EDF members reiterated their concerns at a Nov. 12 board meeting but said they’ll stand behind whatever the commission approves. “The train’s running down the track,” Chandler said. “I’m not standing in front of it.”

When the commission’s Nov. 15 agenda-setting meeting rolled around, no one spoke out against the plan. “I think everybody said what they felt like they needed to say,” Chapman said last week. “There doesn’t seem to be any desire on the part of the commission to hear another side of it.”

Mike Morris, the chamber’s incoming chairman, announced at that meeting that the chamber supports the commission’s plan. “Folks should be doing backflips that y’all have taken this on and agreed to do this and agreed to fund it,” he said.

A majority of commissioners said at the Nov. 15 meeting that they intend to support the proposal when it comes up for a vote Tuesday. It’s only the first step, said Commissioner Kelly Girtz—next, they’ll consider other committee recommendations, like an ombudsman to guide employers through the permitting process. But they want to get the structure in place well before Chapman’s contract expires in June.

“We’re just getting started, but it’s very timely that we move forward,” Hoard said.

The lone dissenter, as is often the case, was Commissioner Doug Lowry, who called the plan half-baked. “I’m just not inclined to support something I don’t really understand,” Lowry said.