Oconee County plans to target information technology, healthcare and professional services as sectors for its future economic development.
By contracting with the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce for economic development, the county will save about $40,000 from last year when it tried to promote economic development on its own.
Courtney Bernardi, president of the Chamber of Commerce, will be the person who will handle economic development for the county.
These were key announcements in the presentations by Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell, County Administrator Justin Kirouac, and Bernardi to the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority at its meeting on Monday.
The Industrial Development Authority in the past played a key role in economic development in the county, and the trio was explaining to the full Authority how things will work if the Board of Commissioners adopts the recommendations of its Economic Development Task Force as expected.
Daniell and Bernardi are members of the Authority, and Authority Chair Rick Waller served on the Task Force.
Of the four members of the Authority present who were getting their first full report on work of the Task Force, only Matt Elder objected, saying the Task Force should have addressed the need for acreage in the county for what he called "allied" businesses.
The Industrial Development Authority, which historically has met monthly, has not gathered since the Economic Development Task Force appointed by the Board of Commissioners first met on Sept. 17. It's last meeting was on June 10.
The Task Force wrapped up its work on Oct. 7, and a representative of that group gave a five-minute summary to the public at the Board of Commissioners Town Hall meeting the next day.
"I figured that since we were meeting to get together for some business today that we would go ahead and take this opportunity to review how we got where we are with the recommendation that for the Chamber to be the lead person in regards to economic development," Waller said as he turned the meeting over to Daniell, Kirouac and then Bernardi.
The Board of Commissioners approved a Memorandum Of Understanding with the Chamber of Commerce in March that provides the Chamber $100,000 annually to handle economic development for the county.
In the past county had a director of economic development who reported to the Board of Commissioners, attended all Industrial Development Authority meetings, and worked pretty much at the direction of the Authority.
Daniell, Kirouac and Bernard spent 15 minutes reviewing the new approach to economic development resulting from that Memorandum of Understanding.
Daniell On MOU
Daniell told the Authority members present that the county spent $125,000 last year for its economic development operation and had spent about $175,000 in previous years.
County Finance Director Wes Geddings, who attends Industrial Development Authority meetings and handles finances for the group, said the actual figure last year was about $140,000.
"We've been ramping down over the last couple of years," Daniell said. "We didn't have a direction or real action plan."
Daniell said the county discussed using the Authority to develop a development plan for the county, but "That didn't really work with the setup we had before."
The county then began to consider outsourcing, based on the experiences of other counties and cities, Daniell said.
"So far we feel like it's working very well," Daniell said.
The $100,000 that goes to the Chamber will come from the county's General Fund and, according to Bernardi, will be in a separate account at the Chamber.
Daniell said the account will be audited similar to other accounts in the county "to make sure everything is being used as it should."
Kirouac On Charge To Task Force
Following the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, the county appointed a 10-member Task Force to provide guidance to the Chamber.
Kirouac said the goals of the Task Force, which met three times, "were really to identify the targeted industries that fit the profile of Oconee County."
The Task Force also was to identify the "needs gaps" in the county" and "ultimately what kind of short terms strategies that we can employ, both as a governing authority and as a Chamber as a partner and everybody else to move forward to facilities these things."
Kirouac said that Bernardi will present the recommendations of the Task Force to the Board of Commissioners.
"When they are satisfied with it, they'll adopt it," Kirouac said, "and that will be the strategy, that will be target that the arrow is going to point toward."
Bernardi said the Task Force began its work recognizing four "foundational values" of the county.
These were the county's 2018 Comprehensive Plan, the county's educational system, the quality of life in the county, and the educated nature of the county's workforce.
"The whole strategy was based on four kind of functional values or foundational values," Bernardi said. "They kept those four things front of mind."
Next, the Task Force asked "What's our competitive edge? What makes Oconee unique compared to all these other communities, not only in Georgia, but in the country and then also globally?
"And what everybody kept coming back to was the four things I just mentioned are super important," Bernardi said, "but what is one thing that no other community has or is taking advantage of like they should? And we kept coming back to the University of Georgia."
"The Task Force just said we really think that one of the biggest values that we have, our competitive edge, is being close to the University of Georgia," Bernardi added.
Mission Statement And Targeted Industries
Bernardi said the Task Force drafted the following mission statement:
"To grow the jobs of tomorrow by investing in our current businesses, creating an unmatched environment for professional and technological innovation and through partnerships with the University of Georgia."
Bernardi said the Task Force recognized "there needs to be a focus on business retention for those who are already here."
At the same time, the Task Force knew one of its goals was identifying "targeted industry sectors."
"So they picked three or identified three targeted industries," Bernardi said, "one being information technology and all of the things that focus that one kind of targeted industry. Healthcare and then also professional services.
"It does not mean that other industries are something that we don't want to consider," Bernardi said, "but those are the ones that they picked based on the infrastructure that we have currently, the planned infrastructure for the community. What seems to be the best fit right now."
"Those targeted industries tend to have a smaller footprint," Bernardi said, "which right now works well with how the county is growing, sewer capacity, and all those things, road infrastructure capacity and understanding the logistics of where we're located."
"So who is going to do the implementation?" Elder asked.
"So that primary role is my responsibility," Bernardi said.
"So did the Task Force talk about our lack of acreage and footprint for allied business and that we didn't get one more foot in the new Comp Plan for any allied business in the county than from our last Comp Plan?" Elder asked next.
"I don't know if that specifically was discussed but a lack of infrastructure and certain things and barriers was definitely discussed," Bernardi said.
"I'm just saying that we don't have one acre for an allied business to go in this county. We didn't have any before in the Comp Plan. Our Comp Plan didn't change one acre of land for allied business to go."
"It didn't talk about that," Bernardi said.
"That, in my opinion, is not good," Elder said.
The Industrial Development Authority has been trying, with limited success, to develop the Gateway Technology Business Park on the southwestern edge of Bogart and went into executive session at the end of the meeting on Monday to discuss land acquisition.
Kirouac And Bernardi
Kirouac was assistant city manager of Johns Creek in north Fulton County before becoming county administrator in the summer of 2017.
Much of his background is in economic development.
Bernardi joined the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce as president in December of 2017.
Prior to joining the Oconee County Chamber, Bernardi was the CEO for Johns Creek Advantage, an economic development organization for the city of Johns Creek.
She has also served as an economic development official for the Chambers of Commerce in Newton and Jackson counties.
Bernardi told me in an email message after the Industrial Development Authority meeting that she will not be hiring any new staff as a result of the Memorandum of Understanding "at this time."
Bernardi is the daughter of Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton.
Horton has recused himself during public discussion of the Memorandum of Understanding and other interactions of the Board of Commissioners with the Chamber of Commerce.
The video below is of the Nov. 11 meeting of the Industrial Development Authority, held at the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, 55 Nancy Drive in Watkinsville.
The video ends when the Authority went into executive session.
Discussion of the work of the Economic Development Task Force begins at 1:05 in the video.
In addition to Bernardi, Daniell and Waller, Authority members present at the meeting were Elder (back to camera in the video), Wayne Bagley (back to camera), Chad Hargrove and Brock Toole (both on the left side, facing camera).
Four members of the Authority did not attend the meeting.
This note is directed at the Anonymous person who left a comment at 11:34 a.m. today. I have no way to know who that person is, so this is the only way I can communicate with her or him.
I am not publishing the comment because it is factually wrong in several ways. First, the Oconee County IDA is actually in the state Constitution. It is true that IDAs are created by legislation, but Oconee's was in existence before that legislation was enacted and has a different status as a result.
Second, the writer confuses the activity of the IDA with the activity of the Board of Commissioners. The IDA did not set up the Memorandum of Understanding with the Chamber. The Board of Commissioners did. At the meeting on Monday, the IDA members were reviewing the Memorandum for the first time.
The writer makes a number of charges that seem to be based on a misunderstanding of who made the decision to contract with the Chamber for these services.
The writer needs to sign the comment and not make sweeping statements about the people involved. I invite her or him to resubmit it under those circumstances.
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