Whether wearing the hat of Hillsboro resident or Marion banker, Jim Hefley is a concerned taxpayer who wants to see what the county is getting out of its investment in economic development.
After receiving a March 28 letter from commissioners responding to questions Hefley posed in writing, he’s still waiting for details.
“It’s a well-crafted letter, well-written,” Hefley said. “Possiby they don’t have any more data to share, I don’t know. But it has no details.”
Having attended a February countywide economic development meeting and two subsequent commission meetings, Hefley has stuck to a consistent theme.
“At that initial large meeting I said goals should be in writing, should be measureable, should be accountable, and should be reportable,” he said.
“I view the commissioners just like a board of directors. They’re leading and managing this county. Are we getting a fair return on our investment as taxpayers, and what results have we seen over the last five years?”
Hefley said he understood that time limitations in commission meetings worked against getting complete answers, which is why he sent an email March 10 asking for specific performance data for the past five years, including:
- How many new businesses have been recruited to the county as a direct result of Marion County Economic Development Department, how many jobs were created, and how many of those businesses are still open;
- How many businesses have closed;
- How many direct recruitment efforts the department has done, and the measureable results;
- How administration and results of a micro-loans program are tracked and reported to commissioners; and
- What percentage of the department’s budget is allocated to business recruitment vs. tourism.
In their response, commissioners said they have not asked the economic development department to track business recruitment, closures, or employment data.
“When working with new and existing businesses, the biggest focus is on bringing in local, regional, and state partners to assist,” the letter reads. “The department has not focused on recruitment of specific businesses, but has worked to increase awareness statewide of the virtues of Marion County as a whole — especially our parks and lakes, small towns, and rural lifestyle.”
However, the county’s strategic 2012-2014 plan specified annual goals of assisting “at least one business per year to become a licensed Agritourism business” and “recruit two new business start-ups each year.”
Performance data for those goals was not provided in the letter. The strategic plan expired after 2014, and a subsequent plan has not been developed.
Hefley said awareness activities still should have measureable outcomes.
“I’m not sure what the county commissioners expected,” he said. “We have awareness, but has that created any jobs? In ‘Field of Dreams’ they said build a field and they will come. What has come? What new businesses, new opportunities have come from this awareness?”
Commissioners described administration and reporting of the micro-loans program in their response.
The department budget is not divided according to activities, the letter reads, but a specific line item for marketing is “about 15 percent of the overall budget.” That’s down from about 20 percent in 2015.
The overriding message in the commissioners’ letter was that the primary focus of the economic development department has been to be a resource and facilitator for businesses seeking assistance, and that tourism and marketing “are vital to the success of our rural county.”
That message is reflected in the job description for economic development director provided by the county clerk’s office. It emphasizes things such as networking, resource development, planning, marketing, and communication, but nowhere specifies active business recruitment as an essential function of the position.
However, commissioners haven’t been deaf to recent community feedback, as evidenced by the closing in their response to Hefley.
“It is clear from the recent meetings with business owners and other citizens that that the county’s path for economic development should be re-evaluated,” the letter read. “It is clear that business and community development are also important to our citizens. It is our intention to form a citizen group to research different options for us to consider.”
Hefley viewed that as a positive development.
“I’m encouraged,” he said. “I hope continued dialogue with business people will help move the county ahead. I think we have a mutual goal. The question is how we start setting measureable goals and making it happen.”
Efforts and accomplishments should be more greatly publicized, Hefley said.
“I would think an annual report to the taxpayers on what’s been accomplished would be a good thing,” he said, comparing it to year-end reports for businesses.
“I guess I’m asking for the same accountability on the county level,” he said. “Run it like a business.”