Economic Development in Polk County Charters a New Course
by Jack P. Brandon, Shareholder, Peterson & Myers, Lake Wales
The Polk County Board of County Commissioners has mandated an organizational review of the Central Florida Development Council of Polk County, which currently consists of two entities; a county department and Central Florida Development Council, Inc., a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit corporation (CFDC, Inc.). The county hires all of the CFDC staff and the executive director reports directly to the county manager. The private not-for-profit, CFDC, Inc., has a 60-member Board, made up of business and government leaders as well as stakeholders from all parts of the county.
While CFDC has compiled a roster of successes through the years, the county commission acted responsively to rumblings throughout the county for the need for better communications with stakeholders and more collaboration with local governments and chambers of commerce. KMK Consulting Company was hired to evaluate the process and return specific recommendations to help guide the review process. After interviewing stakeholders, government leaders, and listening to focus groups, KMK has noted shortcomings in the current system. While the private-sector side of the equation appears to be in control, the executive director and staff answer to the county, and not to CFDC, Inc. The private-sector under the current structure has been supportive of the program and while committing time and money in support of economic development, little opportunity exists to effectuate meaningful change or exercise control over Polk County’s delivery system.
KMK’s consulting team recommendations encompassed three fundamental themes:
- Restructuring of CFDC, Inc., and the Central Florida Development Council;
- Alignment of the economic delivery system within Polk County; and
- Optimal involvement of Polk County’s private-sector leadership.
While the two-tiered system solved the early funding issues using taxpayer dollars, the long-term effectiveness of such a system was questioned by KMK in its report to the commission. The essence of its recommendations centers on a Central Florida Development Council driven by the private-sector with the private-sector providing the majority of the required resources. While this transition would have to be implemented over time, the economic development team of CFDC would transition from county employees to private-sector employees. Membership on the private-sector board which would be reduced in size would require a financial commitment by each board member. The conversion to an “investor board” is significant in that each board member would be financially committed for the long term to the mission of the organization.
An overview of the proposed reorganization and restructuring of economic development in Polk County could very well be characterized as a transition into “pay-to-play,” a concept which will allow for more investor input and a shift from public to private ownership and funding. The challenge will be for the private-sector to raise the necessary funding to allow it to take over the economic engine for Polk County and focus it in a direction which will foster positive economic growth and development. Recent development such as the CSX Intermodal Facility, Legoland, and Florida Polytechnic University set the stage for the creation of a new and improved economic development delivery system. Leadership from the private-sector will be central to the reorganization. While the transition process may face difficulties along the way, Polk County will be poised for new prosperity and growth in concert with the neighboring regions of Orlando and Tampa Bay.