Before he was elected in March, Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub promised to bring economic growth to the city, particularly to the popular but underutilized downtown district.
“If elected, I will lead this City with an exciting vision,” Ayoub, said during his opening remarks at the candidate forum in January. “This vision includes a more vibrant, and a more thriving, downtown which is desperately needed.”
During a goal-setting session in April, the City Commission agreed to find money in the budget to hire an economic development director to help stimulate growth.
But according Ayoub, that process could take too long, and during Monday night’s commission meeting, he suggested an plan to help expedite the process.
“I know we had discussions about hiring a full-time economic development officer,” the mayor said during his Commission Report. “At the time, we agreed to put some money in the budget to move forward with that idea, but that process, if it does come to fruition, is going to take a little bit of time.”
“I guess I’m getting a little impatient, but economic development is definitely a very high priority for me,” he continued. “So, I would like to propose that…we come up with an economic development task force that could start immediately.”
Ayoub’s plan is to have members from segments of the community, i.e. the Chamber of Commerce, civic boards, etc…, form a volunteer committee that would answer to the commission while seeking ways to stimulate economic growth.
“We can appoint somebody that can be our economic development liaison,” the mayor said, “and their mission would be to proactively shape our downtown and try and attract business that are consistent with our vision and our Downtown Master Plan.”
“The idea behind this is to be proactive,” Ayoub added. “We can sit back and be reactive and wait for businesses to come to us…or we can take a more proactive approach…in shaping the makeup of the downtown.”
Ayoub’s idea drew mixed reactions from his fellow lawmakers, with most expressing support for the plan, albeit with a healthy dose of checks and balances thrown in.
“Absolutely,” Commissioner Scott Long said when Ayoub asked who supported the proposal.
“I’m not wavering at all in my strong desire to have a full-time economic development director,” he added.
“But I do see something like this that’s very helpful, at least in the interim, at no cost to the City other than some time.”
Long, who was also elected in March, said he would like to see the committee composed of “community members who are experts in this field” with experience in public/private partnerships and commercial development, which Ayoub agreed with.
Commissioner Andy Zodrow and Vice-Mayor Carlos Diaz also supported the idea, with Zodrow suggesting the commission come up with “clear duties and responsibilities” for the committee and Diaz stating he would like the group to have goals as well as a budget to be able to travel and connect with potential business partners.
“We should establish a budget for the committee to attend different exhibitions or conventions Diaz said. “So they’re not just making phone calls but actually meeting with people and traveling.”
As has typically been the case during his tenure, Commissioner Cliff Merz was the most vocal proponent of utilizing a cautious approach.
“I’m okay in general, but the initial concern that would come to mind is since its volunteer, the accountability,” Merz said. “I would just want to make sure a volunteer doesn’t just go off on their own.”
“I guess the concern is that they don’t go out and bring something back…that they’re very concise on the City’s vision,” he added, noting the commission still needs to work to define that vision.
Ayoub went on to say that he would like the task force to narrow its scope to a few select properties in the downtown district, including the long-vacant, white two-story building across from 500 Main Street.
“We can always change the scope, but to get started, let’s focus on 4 or 5 properties in the CRA where we want to see something,” he said. “If we communicate through the proper channels and offer some incentives to get things going, that may change the dialog.”
“My suggestion is we start with a narrow focus and we do it within the conceptual framework of our Downtown Master Plan.”
The five commissioners ultimately agreed to review the DTMP at the next meeting on August 7, and they directed staff to put together a volunteer application as well as an outline of specific goals for the task force to abide by.
“I know it’s a lot, but I think it will be good for all of us to get the word out there that we’re looking for someone to fill this position…so that we have a way of moving this thing forward,” Ayoub said.
What are your thoughts on this subject, Harborites? Should the City form a volunteer economic development task force, or wait and hire a candidate to fill the EDD position? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
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