The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is considering contracting with the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce to handle economic development rather than employ a county economic development director.
Under the proposal, the Chamber of Commerce would designate a staff person to manage economic development for the county.
Justin Kirouac, county administrator, outlined the proposal on Monday to a called meeting of elected officials.
Members of the Board of Education and of the Board of Commissioners, representatives of three of the county’s four cities, members of the County’s Industrial Development Authority, both of the county’s representatives in the Georgia House of Representatives, and a small number of citizens were present.
Response to Kirouac’s proposal was wholly positive.
Economic Development Council
Under Kirouac’s proposal, the Economic Development Council would be appointed by the Chamber, the Board of Commissioners, the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority and a Convention Visitors Bureau, which the county currently does not have.
The Board of Education and the county’s four cities also could be represented if they desire, Kirouac said.
At present, Kirouac said, he does “not see a whole lot of collaboration” among the people gathered for the meeting and the proposal offers a chance to change that.
Kirouac said the plan was tentative, no agreements had been reached, and he was seeking input from those gathered for the meeting.
In the past, the Board of Commissioners has appointed an economic development director for the county, but the Board eliminated that position with the budget beginning on July 1 of this year.
The resignation of J.R. Charles, then the director of Economic Development, was announced at the May 14 meeting of the Industrial Development Authority.
In the past, the county’s economic development director attended Authority meetings and provided support to that group.
Kirouac said the Chamber has mainly focused on services for its members and has not concentrated on economic development through recruitment.
Kirouac said the county and the Chamber operated in “silos.”
“They had their mission,” Kirouac said. “The Board has their mission. From an economic development, there is very little interplay between the two.”
Kirouac, who has been in his position for a year, was critical of how the county has handled economic development in the past.
“I don’t know that we have a coherent strategy,” Kirouac said. “We don’t have a vision. We don’t quite understand what the strategy is that we need to be looking at.”
Kirouac said he doesn’t think the county wants “20-story glass office buildings.” And he said the county is unlikely to attract a firm from Silicon Valley because of the broadband problems the county has.
“Hopefully, eventually, that kind of company will fit our profile, but it’s not us right now,” he said.
“We’ve had our efforts spread out and not effective in a focused manner,” he said.
Kirouac said he was very pleased with the attendance, which included Deborah Gonzalez from the 117th House District and Jonathan Wallace from the 119th House District.
School Superintendent Jason Branch as well as Board of Education members Tim Burgess and Amy Parish were there.
Dave Shearon, mayor Watkinsville, Janet Jones from the Bogart City Council, and North High Shoals Mayor Toby P. Bradberry were in attendance.
Industrial Development Authority Chair Rick Waller and member Ed Perkins were present. Jones and Shearon also are members of the IDA.
Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell and Commissioners Chuck Horton and Mark Saxon were present, as were three county staff members in addition to Kirouac.
Courtney Bernardi, Chamber of Commerce president, represented that group.
Christy Terrell, external affairs manager for Georgia Power, also was present, as were five citizens.
Convention Visitors Bureau
Kirouac said a representative of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs will be before the Board of Commissioners soon to talk about creation of a Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The goal is to “transition our Tourism Department functionally into a Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Kirouac explained.
The structure is dependent on how the state allows the county to spend money from its Hotel and Motel Tax.
Kirouac called the state regulations “the most Bizantine set of laws that have ever been created.”
“Simplification would be very desirable,” he said, noting that Gonzalez and Wallace were just in front of him.
“A CVB will give a lot more ability to take those hotel/motel funds and start re-seeding them into the community in a really meaningful way,” Kirouac said.
“We’re in,” Watkinsville Mayor Shearon said as soon as Kirouac stopped his presentation. “Obviously, this is a great thing for the county. Watkinsville is part of Oconee County, and I know we can play a contributory role.”
“We’re 100 percent in,” Waller from the Industrial Development Authority said. “We look forward to having this kind of opportunity to work together.”
“As representative of Bogart, we are certainly in,” Jones added. “We’re definitely on board with this.”
“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Commissioner Horton said. “We’ve got collaboration. I think nothing but good is going to come of it.”
Kirouac said in response to Board of Education member Burgess that he will start drafting some documents immediately and begin having meetings with the groups.
Ideally by the end of the calendar year, the plan will be in place, he said.
The meeting took began at 9 a.m. in the Commission Chamber at the Courthouse in Watkinsville and lasted a little more than 30 minutes.
The video below is of the entire meeting.