Backing by the commission will have to be approved by at least two of the other county commissioners, and it is unclear where they stand on the issue at the moment.
Meanwhile, as Lee confirmed he will be running for chairman again in July, his opponent, Bill Byrne, said on Wednesday he absolutely would not support public funding for the project, citing the poor economy and shrinking county budget. Opponents Larry Savage and Mike Boyce said they would need to know more about the project before taking a stance.
“We are clearly at a crossroads where a decision needs to be made as to whether to move forward aggressively or to sit on our hands and fall back and slide back and do nothing,” Lee said to begin the meeting before a crowd estimated around 100. “You’re going to see some information in today’s programming that’s outstanding in its regard to job creation and economic development, recruitment and building existing businesses here in Cobb County. What you’ll see today takes us to the next level, and takes us to the next step to the success of Cobb County.”
Thursday’s official unveiling of EDGE also left unclear what will happen with the county government’s current economic development department, which historically has led economic development efforts in the county and is spearheaded by Michael Hughes. The county would be outsourcing economic development efforts to the EDGE group if commissioners agree to provide public funding. Officials would say only that the county’s role will be included in further studies of the development of EDGE.
Cobb Chamber CEO David Connell said it is too early to know what the project will cost, while the founder of Market Street, the company hired by the Chamber to do the research on the program, J. Mac Holladay, said after the meeting that he estimated it would take about $1.5 million a year to fund four or five staff members and the operations of the group. Holladay said his company has worked on 140 projects similar to EDGE in 30 states. Holladay said Gwinnett’s project, called Partnership Gwinnett, cost about $2 million a year when it was implemented in 2007, while the largest they have worked on was Memphis’ Memphis Tomorrow, which cost $30 million a year and was split evenly between public and private funding.
Holladay said none of the projects on which he’s worked have been completely funded with private money, and he does not believe a project could will work without some public funding.
“It can’t happen. When we talk about infrastructure, or transportation or schools, that’s all public funding. So the relationship and the building of this has got to be a cooperation, a working relationship. … Part of the reality is that if you have skin in the game, if you’re committed, then you’re going to pay real attention to the results and you’re going to be interested in the implementation. …What you’re trying to do is leverage the assets you have. So for the public or private sector to do it alone, that doesn’t leverage it,” Holladay said.
According to an Atlanta media source, Gwinnett commissioners gave $500,000 a year to Partnership Gwinnett, totaling $2.5 million of public funding over five years. Additionally, the cities gave a combined $100,000 a year, the county school system gave $150,000 a year and the Community Improvement Districts gave a combined $60,000 a year. The director of Partnership Gwinnett declined to talk about the project’s funding with the Journal.
That program is run out of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, but Connell said it is unclear yet where the EDGE staff would be housed.
Connell did say, however, the four co-chairs — made up of Lee, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Vice President and General Manager of the Marietta site Shan Cooper, WellStar Health System Senior Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Kim Menefee and Kaiser Permanente Vice President of Regional and Marketing Strategy Dan Styf — will appoint members to the Board of Directors for the EDGE, who will then hire and manage the staff and their operations. Connell said an implementation team, made up mostly of the steering committee, will spend the next six months working on financial considerations (including how much public funding may be needed), a strategy of how the 501(c)3 would work, and would be traveling to other areas with similar structures to study what has worked for them. Connell said he would hope that the board would be appointed and a strategy in place by July but not the organization, while Holladay said he hoped the organization would be created and ready to go by July.