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Becker, Nelson clash in economic development debate

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The 2021 Apopka City Council Budget Workshops

By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

It's become a familiar theme at Apopka City Council budget workshops over the years.

"Six years in and six years I've asked," said Commissioner Kyle Becker, during the Community Development presentation at Wednesday's workshop. "The past three or four years I've asked pretty specifically."

The ask Becker is referring to? His dogged attempt to start an economic development department in the City of Apopka. Despite his annual efforts, getting a department or even a director in the budget has eluded him.

But at the Wednesday workshop, he would give it his sixth attempt - leaving nothing on the playing field.

"We always like to benchmark ourselves against other cities," Becker said. "You look at Winter Garden, Sanford, Mt. Dora, even Tavares has an economic development program. And what do they all have in common? They're all getting the things the residents are demanding over and over and over again... and we have this huge aversion to budgeting $120,000, even $100,000 to this position that can pay off many-fold in terms of benefits to this city. I'm curious why we can't get this budgeted and staffed in our city? I don't understand."

City Administrator Edward Bass has been there to hear the majority of Becker's calls for the new department, but he reminded the commissioner the City has a partnership with the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce for economic development.

"If the Council wishes to budget that item, we'll take your direction on that position," said Bass. "Keep in mind we have that program with the Chamber. We got our website up and running and we paid a portion of that to go forward on. You know COVID kind of hit us there, but keep in mind that if that is the wishes of the Council to add that position we can add that position. We'll have to figure out what we want to adjust or move but we can do that."

But the combination of the Chamber and the Community Development Department was not what Becker had in mind for a robust economic development strategy in Apopka.

"I guess it's a question for my colleagues. And I'm unsure why we can't get this staffed. Because I don't think that Jim serves that role. I think it's a different skill set. I think it's a different direction in terms of what he does day-to-day compared to what an economic development director would be doing on a day-to-day basis. I outlined a job description. I furnished it to the Council for the past two two budget years. You look at businesses like the Three Odd Guys, and Propagate House that's getting ready to open, and yeah they're doing it, but we've got to help them build critical mass... reasons why people come and go there and stay to patron their businesses. Every year, every campaign we talk about it. And it's the same thing that residents are demanding, and the position I think that would be the most apt to drive that."

A Mayor as Economic Development Director

Mayor Bryan Nelson told Becker he is acting as the economic development director for Apopka.

"That's been kind of my role," Nelson said. "That's what I've been doing. I can't tell you how many I've met with as far as industrial properties. The airport properties, out by GE Road, my point being... would you rather meet with the mayor or an economic development advisor?"

Becker strongly pushed back on Nelson's assertion.

"It's a different skill set altogether," said Becker. "It's not about 'hey, I'm talking to the mayor,' it's about talking to a person that understands my business, understands my needs, understands entitlements of property, understands what's up in terms of the vibe of the city. It's not going and rubbing elbows with people. It's being purposeful... going to conferences. Being deliberate and bringing the type of establishments people are talking about. I guarantee you when you go door-to-door people aren't demanding that industrial come to our city. They're asking about places to go for entertainment, retail shopping, restaurants... places they can go and congregate with their family. Industrial is not that."

The role of Community Development Director

Commissioner Alexander Smith, who in a previous interview touted Hitt as doing the job of an economic development director, asked for clarification.

"What is it that Jim Hitt does? I thought this was part of his role."

"That is part of his role currently," said Bass. "He does a portion of that. He is the Community Development Director, so he's planning, zoning, the building department... of course we have a building official who runs that department, but that is a small piece of his job. But that is not his main focus. His big focus is running the community development department. Do they meet with people who come in that are interested like Mayor said? Yeah. They come here. They are interested in our city. Mayor's been out working... getting people to come to the city that is interested. We've had a lot of people say they want to do this, they want to do that, and of course, they have to go through community development for the tools and the things we need. So we do that. And he does that as well. But that is not his only job. He's not focused only on economic development. He has other pieces in his job as well. We also have a partnership with the Chamber. They got our website up and running - that was step one. The next step they are doing is the brochures... so we have stuff so when we do meet these people we have the tools. You've got to have that too."

A Torchbearer for the City

But Becker thinks economic development needs more than a partnership with the Chamber.

"It's a complimentary piece, versus having someone on staff," said Becker. "The passionate torchbearer for the City. The Chamber, in all fairness to the Chamber, they have their mission, they have their vision, they have their network of membership that they're trying to help. If the City comes knocking at the door and says 'hey, change priorities or go after this for us, that's unfair for them to operate in that manner. Collateral. If we're going and branding our city with collateral, that's not the Chamber that should be doing that. It's us. We're the City. And that's why I look at the Chamber as an augmentation as to what we're doing from an economic development perspective."

And according to Becker, economic development directors in the community agree.

"I've had conversations with economic development directors in other cities that are doing it well and I asked that specific question - would you rely solely on the Chamber to do the work you're doing? Now granted, you've got some built-in bias because that's their job... but that's not their end-all, be-all for the economic development needs for a City. At least in the conversations I've had, and that's why I keep on doing my ask because I don't think that it's a huge ask in terms of investment versus what we stand to get reputationally."

He also thinks an economic development director will enhance the mixed-use potential in Apopka.

"We're doing all of this mixed-use development, but it keeps having this proliferation of residential. Even the Marden area, when it was originally visioned, went from a larger commercial aspect, and now it's just this small little commercial subset of that community. Having someone who goes out and seeks the commercial and seeks the retail and all the other things our residents are asking for. Again, I renew my call. It's obviously up to the will of the Council. I just want to renew my ask for it."

A focus on downtown Apopka

Commissioner Diane Velazquez was also in support of Becker's proposal. And she wants their priority to be developing downtown Apopka.

"There has been frustration. If you go on social media... that's all you hear. 'When is our downtown going to become a reality?' And the Taurus project by the Hilton has gone stagnant. They had promised to bring in all these entrepreneurs and small businesses, Starbucks, and nothing has happened. And we get the feedback. So I think if we can hire an economic person that strictly tries to build this and make it become a reality... because they're not just going to wait for someone to contact them. They're going to go out and aggressively look."

But Bass told Velazquez there has been movement on the Taurus project.

"The commission did, several years ago, have an agreement with Taurus, and we've worked very hard with Taurus," said Bass. "They have expectations. They're supposed to perform. We've worked very hard with them. Pushing them. Doing what we can do, but they have an agreement with us. I do know we have tried and we are working with them. To that point, we're doing what we can with the Taurus agreement. We've made a lot of tweaks to that agreement."

"What has been the latest update from them?" Velazquez asked.

An update on the Taurus Project

"I'll be happy to give it to you," said Nelson. "But let's go back. Let's talk about the Taurus agreement, which the initial one I had nothing to do with. You gave them a 10-year workout, so here we are... and they needed us for something, so we shortened the time frame for them to start doing stuff. Probably by the end of the third quarter we'll have some announcements to make from Taurus that will be really advantageous, so for me to go out and speculate before I've got an agreement... they keep telling me things, but show me a signed contract. What they've told me they're going to have... everybody should be very pleased. But, do I have it in my hand? A signed document? No. If I've made one call, I've made 50 calls to Taurus over the last three months. I'm out there hustling. It might not seem like it, but until I've got something, a document or something, it makes no sense to bring it forward and get your hopes up."

Nelson also said he is spending a lot of time on economic development and has several deals in the works.

"I can't work any harder on economic development and I can tell you the folks I've met with that want to come to Apopka or are considering coming to Apopka, they're overly impressed that the mayor took this time out of his busy schedule to come out and meet with them and talk about what we can do to bring them to Apopka... and I think creating jobs here in Apopka will bring the retail, the restaurants to Apopka, but when your jobs are in Orlando, which about 50 years ago that was the model. You worked in Orlando, you came back to Apopka, and you played on the weekends. Well, we've got to change that, and so industrial does matter. And commercial matters. If we get those things where jobs are here, they'll stay here, they'll eat here, and they'll shop here but we don't have that. I've got deals with Wekiva Riverwalk. We're working with their sister property across the street. Trust me, I'm spending an inordinate amount of time on economic development that an economic development coordinator couldn't do as good as I'm doing."

Becker strongly questioned if that's the correct role of a mayor.

"Oh my gosh!" Becker exclaimed. "You're the mayor of our city. The presidents of companies don't go out and sell their products. They have a sales team that does that for them. If you want to go in and close a deal, have at it. But name me a city around here that has their mayor doing that instead of a formal economic development director. I just have a difference of opinion there."

Commissioner Doug Bankson, the last to weigh in on the issue, was open to the idea but would prefer having the economic development done in-house, if possible, with existing employees.

"To bring it back to the question... are we willing to entertain that notion? I've been open to that. My question has always been... do we really need to do that? Or can we do it in the aggregate with what we already have? So I guess that's been my question and then COVID hit us in the gut and slowed down our ability to prove if we're going to get there in the aggregate or to get a point man who can do that and pay for that. I'm not against that. I see the merit in that."

He was also in favor of Nelson's trips to see business prospects.

"I do think there's a benefit to that. If Jeff Bezos shows up and does these things... people are like wow! And the fact that the mayor does have longstanding and deep relationships with state-level contacts, I think that is a benefit. And in the airport area what I know is going on. That is going to bring jobs, and that is the base for our restaurants, entertainment, and I know that's a part. I think we're all aware of that. So I guess that's the big thing for me that would push it over the mark. And I'm willing to do that if we're not getting there in the aggregate. So, I think we should give it another year and it's going to show, and if we're not there in that amount of time, I think we need to jump on that as you presented it."

Becker closed the discussion by explaining that the diversity of businesses are one of the reasons why an economic development director would flourish in Apopka.

"I don't mean to diminish the importance of industrial or any certain piece of business that comes to Apopka. It's all part of the mixture that makes us attractive. I'm just saying that other cities are doing it well, and that didn't happen by accident. And what's the common denominator? Most of them have an economic development director that we're trying to emulate... so I go with a kind of a practical thought there."

Like the previous five workshop seasons, Becker's ask ended without consensus. But don't expect it to end there. In fact, with the FY2022 budget not finalized, there is still a chance it could make it in the final edition. If not, the budget workshops for FY2023 could be an entirely different playing field.

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