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Leaders discuss governments' role in business growth

Hall, cities offer input but pleased overall with chamber's development efforts

POSTED: March 30, 2013 12:58 a.m.

Two local political leaders met last week with economic development leaders to suggest changes to the public-private partnership between their governments and a key local agency.

Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum and Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan met with Chris Braswell, chairman of the Gainesville-Hall County Economic Development Council, and Philip Wilheit, chairman of the Development Authority Chairman, on the behalf of the county and the EDC’s member cities, including Oakwood, Lula and Flowery Branch.

But the effort may have already lost steam. Dunagan called the leaders of both groups Thursday to say the city was happy with the way things are.

The EDC is a division of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce with separate accounting and bookkeeping. Hall County and Gainesville pay $130,000 annually to the development council. Flowery Branch kicks in $15,000, Oakwood gives $10,000 and Lula doesn’t currently contribute. The chamber gives $130,000 through its Hallmark investment plan.

Gainesville and Hall officials said they collectively are giving most of the money to fund economic development in the county, but are not seeing a return in new economic development or influence within the organization. They also want a long-term economic development strategy, something more targeted than the chamber’s plan.

At the lunch meeting, participants discussed bringing in a consultant to conduct a study and tweak the executive committee’s makeup, Braswell said.

“We want to enhance what the chamber’s doing and do a marketing plan,” Dunagan said Wednesday. “Get the funding parties more say at the table. We don’t want to inhibit or hurt the chamber.”

Wilheit said he was open to more discussion and making improvements. Braswell said he was also open. Both expressed concern over the possible cost of a long-range plan and emphasized Dunagan’s positive call.

Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said the city used to give $15,000 a year because the chamber asked it to pay more about five years ago to fund the salary of a commercial economic development person. He said all the member cities and the county started contributing more at that time.

Hall County and Gainesville were contributing $100,000 before moving to give an additional $30,000 a year and the smaller cities began giving $5,000 more. Brown said someone was in the position for just a few months.

Brown said chamber staffers working in economic development, Tim Evans and Shelley Davis, do a great job, but city officials have to be stewards of the public’s money. He noted that local governments give 70 percent of the funding, but have only 20 percent of the vote.

The EDC has a maximum of 50 members. Its bylaws state there is a fixed position for mayor of each financially supporting jurisdictions, and a position for the manager or administrator of each. That’s currently Gainesville, Hall County, Oakwood and Flowery Branch. If there are 50 members appointed, as the bylaw sets, local government officials make up about 16 percent.

Wilheit said member voting is usually unanimous.

The bylaws also state that the executive committee shall have no more than 16 members, with a position for the mayor or administrator of each jurisdiction that offers financial support. Fixed members of the executive committee also include the chairman, vice chairman and treasurer of the EDC, chairman and president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, a representative from Lanier Technical College and chairman of the Gainesville-Hall County Development Authority. The remaining at-large positions should come from the business community, the bylaws say.

If all 16 positions are filled, that means the local governments make up about 25 percent of the executive committee. Members of the EDC, chamber and development authority account for about 38 percent of the board.

“The chamber is supposed to try to enhance economic development in our community,” said Brown, an EDC member for 10 years. “That’s what it’s being paid for.”

Wilheit said the chamber was an important part of bringing the King’s Hawaiian Bakery to Oakwood.

Kit Dunlap, CEO and president of the Chamber of Commerce, told company officials at the grand opening last year, “Thank you for the jobs, thank you for adding to our tax base, thank you for being part of our team and our community.”

Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin said the economy was a large factor in cutting off the annual contribution from his city, but return on the money’s investment was also one of many factors. The city’s mayor has asked Bergin to put the money back in consideration for next year’s budget.

Bergin said Wednesday that the city supported Dunagan’s and Mecum’s efforts to gain more of a voice for the county and cities.

Brown and Braswell said Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew suggested a different approach to economic development planning at a Joint Municipal Association meeting and at an EDC meeting. Braswell said the response to the suggestion at the EDC meeting was favorable, but Andrew was asked to come back with more specifics.

Andrew didn’t return calls for comment.

All city and county officials contacted praised the work of the chamber of commerce and its staff, with emphasis on Evans and Davis.

Mecum, meanwhile, said the short-lived effort to gain more clout in the economic development program for the governments had already come to an end.

“Politics, my dear,” Mecum said Thursday evening. “It’s not the end of the world.”


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