It took over six years, four election cycles, a couple of presentations, and a late-night City Council meeting, but Apopka finally took the first step in creating an economic development department. But even as the votes were counted, the result was held in limbo for what seemed like an eternity.
"All those in favor say 'aye'," Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson said, to which the ominous sound of only two voices - Commissioners Kyle Becker and Nick Nesta responded.
Two out of five would not be enough.
"All those opposed," Nelson said, and then joined Commissioner Alexander Smith in voicing a 'nay' vote.
Hmmm... two out of five would not be enough to kill the measure, either.
The fate of economic development hung in the balance for a few seconds until the lone female voice on the Apopka City Council weighed in.
"I'll vote 'aye'," said Commissioner Diane Velazquez.
In what is about as close to a buzzer-beater moment as it will ever experience, the Apopka City Council approved the creation of an economic development department with a 3-2 vote at Wednesday's marathon six-hour meeting.
The approval sets in motion a department that will be seeded $200,000 from funds given to Apopka by the American Rescue Plan Act – State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLF-RF). The first order of business will be to create a job description and hire an economic development director to spearhead the department into the future.
Becker began the presentation with a slide that showed Apopka was one of four cities out of 14 without an economic development department.
"We're a bit of an outlier in the sense that we don't have an economic development partner or director by name, similar to what other cities are doing," Becker said. "The purpose of this slide is not necessarily to show how these departments are funded or how they're staffed or organized, it's merely to say other cities find value here, and Apopka... hopefully, through the course of this presentation, I'll prove the case that we should too."
Before Becker pushed forward in his presentation, he asked the City Council to keep an important point in mind - what would inaction look like?
"I would just ask, really have the lens of what if we do nothing? What if we don't make this investment? What if we don't use these dollars for this purpose? Think about how we operate today, the pace at which we have the types of establishments that we all kind of have in our head of what Apopka wants to look like. Just have that in your lens."
Becker added eight slides to the first, which covered many aspects of the how and why of creating the department. It included:
Becker concluded the presentation with a summary of why Apopka needs an economic development department to move into the future.
"I think this position can serve our residents very well," he said. "I just think that setting up a department our within our budget, the creation of that role, and the funding that we already have in our budget... that's currently unallocated, and for that purpose, I think this is a pretty reasonable ask for us all to feel that it gets us on the right trajectory. So with that, I yield for questions."
And yes, there were many questions, comments, and pushback from the Council.
Velazquez was the first to speak and compared the process to her experience with the Apopka Vision 2025.
"I know this is something that Commissioner Becker has been kind of working on, not just recently," she said. "And I agree that we need someone who will just concentrate on who we are and how we want to grow. We're kind of building here, we're building there, we got mixed use here, we've got warehouses there, but we're not getting any businesses. And you are right. I mean, we've approved warehouses, mixed uses, and every time we ask, 'what are you bringing with it?' And they say, 'no, we're just going to build it. We have to figure out what we're going to put in there afterward. And, of course, our city downtown is really kind of stagnated. I've been here before, Kyle. And when we did that Apopka Vision 2025, I remember going around the entire city, different neighborhoods... we didn't just start, we didn't just do the survey in one place. I mean, we went to people and communities for weeks on end, and people were really excited about how we would brand. And then it got shelved. And that's where it's been."
Smith, who was skeptical of starting a department and hiring a full-time director at the December 21st meeting, was in the same place after Becker's presentation.
"When I was elected in 2018, for about two months, I took that booklet, Apopka Vision 2025, and I read them thoroughly.," Smith said. "All of the plans that the committee had suggested will make Apopka a great place to live. And not only was it about economic development but also the annexation of South Apopka was a part of that project as well. That's something that needs to be done. And I don't have a problem with the economic development director, I just don't feel that we're ready for a full-time position at this time. I attended the Florida League of Cities meetings and talked to other commissioners and economic development directors from other cities. They didn't start with the economic development director full-time. Initially, they started with a person part-time, and even one City said that that person reported directly to the mayor in a part-time position, and then as the City grew and it developed, then they developed a full-time position, then developed a department because that person would need support staff as well."
Nesta was the first to ask Becker questions about his plan to form a department by first starting with a director.
"Can you talk about the purpose of having a specific department versus having just one person underneath community development?" Nesta asked.
I wanted to have a director-level position that we felt comfortable, and so I want to be able to ratify that position," Becker said. "And I think that role would then... we as a Council work collectively with that director. I mean, obviously, you have a point of view about what the framework of that position is, but success measures as it relates to Apopka because Apopka is not broad brush, you know, you could have success measures for our downtown area, our southern area, our hospital, our Kelly Park crossing in the Florida and town center area cap, it's very unique, as these new pockets of uniqueness pop up within. So that's where I would. You get the position in place, their director level, they've got seniority to come to Council and say, 'Let's work together. Let's get this mapped out from an overall strategy."
Nesta also wanted to know the type of person that would be the best fit for this position.
"What person do you see? Or from what industry? What do you see as a perfect candidate for this? What does that look like?"
"You've got to have a very sales and marketing approach to the position," Becker said. "You've got to be able to have a person who can network effectively because it's not about going in and seeking out the businesses that already have the for sale sign in their yard to try and get people to fill it in. It's knowing the pieces of attractive property that people haven't even thought about selling yet to a potential person that can benefit our city. And then to that has the acumen to deal with some of our development community to say, Hey, I know you're thinking, you're potentially building spec, you know, I've got a backlog of these types of businesses that might be good for your particular project. So it's, it's, it's a very proactive person. I would envision this role, hardly spending any time in City Hall walls. They're out and about in our community, external to our community, and more importantly, because it's about getting those businesses to come here. So that would be my emphasis. And then, obviously, knowing their way around grant funding, funding sources, government policy, and state statutes."
After several public comments in favor of the proposal, Nelson questioned the process in which the initiative was being presented.
"I want to talk just a little bit about process," Nelson said. "The last department we created was the city attorney's department. We went from a contracted city attorney to an in-house city attorney. And we did it during the normal process. We put it through the budget process. We had the job description set up. We had the where and to who they reported. All those things were put into place before we ever funded. So we had the department set to go, and it was a savings. It wasn't even if it was going to cost us money... it would save us money. So that was just a short, four years ago, or so. If we put this new department in, we're trying to jump step this all ... the whole process to get to the position of let's set up the department. We don't have a job description. We don't have a lot of the things that we need to have ironed out before that, and as Commissioner Smith said, We can wait until the budget year. It's not like something can't wait until we get to the new budget year."
Nelson also announced what he described as two critical needs at the meeting where the allocated $200,000 would be better spent.
"The last thing I'll say is we talked about the money. We've got two things that I would say we should consider that are more important and more pressing than a new position with, for now, unsustained and no real idea whether it's going to work or not. But we just had to take a fire tower out of service. It was a prototype that we've had for 20-something years. And so the fire team came to us and said, 'Hey, this fire tire fire tower does not meet engineering codes... so we need to take it out. So the new fire tower is $275,000, which is a capital cost, not an operating cost. So if we want to spend $200,000, I would suggest that the fire tower is a much better use of our money, just for the safety of our fire department and all of our firefighters."
Nelson also referenced a pension issue that he believes will need to be addressed in the next budget cycle.
"And then the last one, which I think is something to be concerned about... and that's our pension. And if you see, the state of Florida is now looking at some pension discrepancies, which are not discrepancies but pension shortfalls. And just so everybody knows, we have about $200 million in our three pension funds. And like everybody else, we've lost at least 10 to 15%. We know we'll have to spend a lot more this year on the pension based on the losses we took, even with the smoothing that we normally do. So if you're going to spend some additional money, if we will spend $200,000, I think the fire tower or the pension would be a much better use of the funds."
"It sounds like the first argument you're making is that this isn't following a process," Becker said in response to Nelson's alternatives. "The process is we're the City Council, and we set policy. We can create departments and roles whenever we choose as long as the collective body approves it. So from a process perspective, I would incur, and you've been on record many, many times, saying it's your process and procedure that you get your agenda out to permission before five o'clock PM every Friday. I would venture to guess there are probably minuscule times when we get our agenda by five o'clock every Friday. So when we talk about process and not following a process, that really has no bearing on the argument of whether or not we should staff and the fruits that we can stand to get from having that investment."
He also questioned Nelson's reason for bringing up pension funds as an alternative expenditure to the economic development department.
"It's very curious as to you bringing up pension funds... kind of creating this quasi debt financial crisis, because I'm suggesting that we spend $200,000 a year in terms of economic development because, from my recollection, I believe you budget for 6% raises every year. So that has a direct implication for pension liability. So you can't have one side of the argument and not accept the other. It's an investment because we're going to get returns on that investment and make it take a different shape. It could be hard dollars, it could be quality of life and a multitude of things. But I don't hear a whole bunch of people getting up at that lectern, voicing their opposition to this. I don't see a whole bunch of emails coming through my email box saying, Kyle, you're off your rocker. This is a bad use of taxpayer dollars. So I don't understand what the friction is on this thing. It's not to say that all of this is going to be spent in two months when we're going to have the person in place two months from now. Let's do the right search, get the right credentials, get the right background, and get the right person so that they can hit the ground running and build a team that they need to build as any other organization does, whether it's in the public realm or private industry. We've got to spend a little to make more returns."
At the end of the presentation, discussion, public comments, and expected pushback, Apopka took a significant step in taking control of its own destiny rather than allowing developers and market forces to decide how Apopka will grow. The Apopka Voice launched its news site in 2015, just a little before Becker was elected to Seat #4 on the city commission. We supported his initiative to create an economic development department as early as 2016, through two different administrations, and we applaud his efforts, along with the City Council, to form a department we believe will be a springboard to Apopka's economic success for many years to come.