Chamber Chief Operating Officer Demming Bass told the county’s annual management retreat Thursday that Cobb’s Competitive EDGE project, which the Chamber paid for, can’t realistically expect to get the reported $500,000 that Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners annually gave the Partnership Gwinnett economic development project for the past five years.
“We know what the economic realities are today, so this is going to be led by the private sector,” he said. “Private investors and employers are going to make up the bulk of this.”
Bass pointed to statistics from an Austin, Texas, economic development initiative that has 78 employers that each contribute at least $20,000 annually. After private business, he said Competitive EDGE hopes to get its next largest funding slice from grants to help with the workforce.
“Yes, we are open to any public sector partner that looks at this and would like to invest in a program like this,” he said. “But if you look at some of the reporting on places like Gwinnett, and some of those dollars, the reality is, this is a time when budgets are very stretched, and nobody is going to be coming and asking for those types of dollars.”
After his 50-minute presentation to county elected officials and department heads, Bass said the Chamber hasn’t finalized the Competitive EDGE budget, so it doesn’t know how much it will seek from the county or Cobb County School District. Yet Commissioners JoAnn Birrell, Woody Thompson and Bob Ott have all said they would not support using Cobb County money for the EDGE project. But Bass said the economic development project could get by with only support from the private sector.
“It absolutely would be successful without the county money, but the most successful partnerships are one where the public sector is involved financially at some degree,” Bass said. “But keep in mind that we’re in the middle of tough economic times and if the money’s not there, it’s not there.”
At the Jan. 19 EDGE rollout event, J. Mac Holladay, who conducted the study for Atlanta-based Market Street Services, estimated the total yearly cost for the public-private partnership to spark job growth at around $1.5 million per year for staff and operations. He added that his company had worked on 140 projects similar to EDGE in 30 states, and none had used all private money.
Ott said it might be premature for Bass to say the EDGE project doesn’t require county money.
“What I heard today was, we’re at the point where they’re going to present their plan,” he said. “I’m not sure that they’ve figured out how much they need.”
Ott said the plan could be positive if it doesn’t take county funds.
“I think that if the Chamber and private business want to put this together and fund the positions, hey, I think that’s what the role of the Chamber is,” he said. “To attract new business and to help the businesses that are already here. Especially in this economy, it would be inappropriate for us to fund it.”
Participation in committees, as well as land use and redevelopment plans, are good ways for the county to be involved in the Chamber’s economic development plans, Ott said. But a Chamber-affiliated organization shouldn’t run economic development for the county.
“The county absolutely needs to be involved, because we are the ultimate say if you’re going to try to work with property owners,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in making sure that we are not impeding redevelopment. Commissioner Thompson and I have numerous sites in our districts that are right for redevelopment, but it’s not happening. The Competitive EDGE may do that, but we’ve got to figure out why that’s not happening.”
Birrell said that objections to the county funding Competitive EDGE from commissioners and the public may have contributed to the Chamber’s pullback on seeking public money.
“It’s pretty obvious that when three of the commissioners didn’t support the county funding piece of it, I’m sure that had something to do with it,” she said.
Bass said work on the Competitive EDGE began shortly after Cobb Chairman Tim Lee’s 2011 “State of the County” address, where the chairman discussed a desire for a focus on economic development. At the same time, David Connell was taking over as chief executive officer of the Cobb Chamber.
“I think they, coming in together, understood the need to be more aggressive and more effective on job creation, and that’s what led to this,” Bass said. “It’s the classic case of the business community and local government seeing a need and addressing it collaboratively.”
The EDGE has been led by a steering committee with four co-chairs: Shan Cooper, Lockheed Martin vice president and Marietta plant general manager; Kim Menefee, WellStar Health System’s senior vice president of public and government affairs; Dan Styf, Kaiser Permanente vice president of regional and marketing strategy; and Lee.
“They were a good cross section of the business community: You have one of our largest employers in Lockheed. You have WellStar, the largest health care system; Kaiser, the interesting thing about Dan is he’s kind of a newcomer and outsider, he lives in Cobb, but he’s had a lot of experience in strategic planning … and then Chairman Lee being sort of the public sector partner,” Bass said.
A large part of the EDGE study deals with improving transportation, with traffic congestion being perceived as the single greatest challenge facing existing residents and businesses in Cobb, as well as the single greatest threat to future growth and prosperity. The study calls for creating a Coalition for a Clear Commute in Cobb to coordinate alternative commuting initiatives. It also called for “transit-oriented development concepts.”
Yet Bass said he was not disappointed when Lee asked Governor Nathan Deal and state legislators to reopen Cobb’s Transportation Investment Act project list this week in order to pull $689 million earmarked for light rail or bus rapid transit, and replace it with funding for reversible managed toll lanes on Interstates 75 and 575 in Cobb. Deal scrapped plans for a public-private partnership to build the managed lanes in December out of fear of the state’s long-term obligations to private companies.
“The plan, it’s holistic,” Bass said. “We’re looking at everything we can do to reduce traffic congestion, whether it’s roads, transit is only a piece of that … I’m not discouraged at all because the Chamber … our No. 1 goal has always been to reduce traffic congestion along the 41/I-75-575 corridor by all means necessary. We’ve always been supporters for both adding lanes to I-75 and also a transit alternative that connects Atlanta all the way up to Cherokee County.”
Bass said Competitive EDGE is designed to be a 501(c)3 non-profit public-private partnership that is technically separate from the Chamber, with a separate board and financial statements. But it would receive funding from the Chamber and its staff, which is likely to start at four people, could be brought over from the Chamber and the new entity would probably use Chamber office space.
But Bass said it is important for the economic development project to be distinct from the Chamber.
That would differentiate Competitive EDGE from Partnership Gwinnett, which is an initiative of the Gwinnett Chamber, though it has its own budget.
“We wanted it to be separate, because this is a collaborative effort,” Bass said. “We did not want this to be a Chamber initiative. This is a community initiative.”
In addition, the organization’s 501(c)3 status allows it to accept public funds, but prohibits Competitive EDGE from lobbying.
“It allows us the greatest flexibility to receive grant monies from a variety of sources, federal, state and local,” he said.
Bass also said Competitive EDGE won’t “outsource” staff from the county or other government entities economic development departments.
“If you read the report, it doesn’t call for the abolishment of any group,” he said. “It talks about the need for each of the cities and the county to have staff.”
Bass said Competitive EDGE seeks to make its first hire this summer, and then officially launch its strategy. Employees would include a project manager, a director of education and workforce, a director of entrepreneurship and someone to head the transportation coalition.
Though many businesses are experiencing struggles similar to governments, Bass feels good about EDGE appealing to donors.
“It’s created such a stir of excitement in the business community, and we’ve had a very positive early response to it, that I think it will be no problem raising funds from the private sector,” he said.
The EDGE’s ultimate goals, like reducing Cobb unemployment from 9.1 percent to 5.1 percent by 2017 and increasing per capita income by $4,000 per person, will end up helping the county’s tax base, Bass said.
“How much additional tax dollars are generated to be able to let you roll back the millage rate?” he said. “You’re stimulating job growth, expanding the tax base, and, ultimately, you’re providing the citizens great services.”