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  • Last modified 76 days ago (May 3, 2018)

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Stumbling out of the box

When agreeing on office space is arguably the most significant accomplishment of Marion County Community Economic Development Corporation to date, stumbling out of the box may be too kind.

With board chairman Amy Doane leaving, an executive director search process coming up dry, and county commission chairman Dianne Novak demanding the county take its money back Monday, it’s more like out of the frying pan and into the fire for the nascent savior of the county’s economic future.

A little over a year ago, when the county’s economic development task force unveiled its proposal and asked commissioners for $825,000 over five years to make it happen, commissioner Randy Dallke said, “If you never step out of the box, you never get anywhere.”

However, it seems the most insightful and predictive “box” statement was uttered about a year earlier by former task force chairman Chris Hernandez after the group’s initial meeting.

“I thought people were going to put on boxing gloves a couple times,” Hernandez said.

Indeed, the gloves came out last summer and into the fall when the group tried to recruit cities and their dollars to the cause, as Peabody, Marion, and Hillsboro wrangled over who should be on the corporation board.

In the end, by design, all those task force folks who’d spent nearly a year and a half working on birthing this entity were gone. A partial board of new members took over the task of breathing life into it.

At the moment, it looks instead like MCCEDC is on life support.

We’re not faulting the commitment of MCCEDC’s new board. We’re glad they chose to step up.

But they inherited a concept, an undertaking not of their own creation, one long driven by an underlying mantra of “If we get the right person as executive director, everything will be all right.”

Hiring a search firm to look for director candidates was a good move, but pickings were slim. They’ve unfortunately discovered a simple truth: having a competitive salary doesn’t ensure you’re going to be competitive in the hunt for talent.

Novak may have unwittingly made that task harder with her remarks Monday. Her concerns about how MCCEDC is working are valid, but suggesting now that the county take its money and run illustrates the difference between a shoot-from-the-hip populist and a thoughtful politician.

Growing pains of new organizations can be overlooked by candidates eager for a job; knowing that MCCEDC’s largest funder is making noise about pulling the source of their potential salary cannot. It was going to be a challenge to get a good economic development director anyway, but now there’s an even more significant reason to think twice about coming on board.

Threatening MCCEDC’s funding isn’t going to make the board any more effective. It’s a premature, strong-arm, grandstanding tactic that runs completely counter to the original intent of the organization, which was to take politics out of the economic development equation.

Of course, we’ve never believed that to be realistic. Politics is inherent to an organization dependent on politicians for its financial life. To pretend otherwise is naïve and dangerous.

Since the other two commissioners didn’t agree with Novak, the county’s financial commitment to MCCEDC is safe, for now. But the seeds of uncertainty have been publically sown.

And what are Marion, Hillsboro, or Peabody to make of it? All three skeptical at some point, should any of them be reassured of their commitments by Novak’s comments?

Yet as we said earlier, Novak’s frustrations are valid. What do we really have to show for nearly two years worth of time and energy invested beyond a slick PowerPoint presentation of conceptual directions, a series of disagreements and missteps, and a place for MCCEDC to call home?

If we’re to stay the course, MCCEDC should quickly invest in professional board member training. For a board to be most effective, it needs to function as a group, not merely a collection of individuals.

Adequate training might have prevented, for example, treasurer Mike Beneke from proposing a clear conflict-of-interest office proposal that other members wisely turned down. Then again, Beneke was advised against the proposal before he ever made it, so training isn’t the only answer. But it’s a start.

The bigger question looming is this: Can a model that worked in other places with different conditions and dynamics work in Marion County?

The ongoing promise has been that highly qualified executive director at the helm of MCCEDC will have the necessary resources to do great things, although they will need time to get things rolling. If they can’t deliver on the first part of that promise soon, the next “box” reference may be to one made of pine, about six and a half feet long, with handles on the side.

— david colburn

Last modified May 3, 2018

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