By MARK I. JOHNSON, Staff writer
When Pierre Lafleur decided to come out of retirement as a shopping cart manufacturer, he set his sights on Central Florida. Not because it is a hotbed of industrial activity, rather the opposite was true.
"It was quality of life," said the self-described "founder, janitor and president" of Cart Tech in Edgewater. The company rebuilds shopping carts for companies looking for an alternative to buying new.
Lafleur said his wife wanted to live on the ocean so he looked at a map and found New Smyrna Beach.
While his business partner tried to persuade him to look west, even enticing him with a building in Sanford, the idea of a daily commute coupled with an available location in Edgewater at the right price kept him in Southeast Volusia. And by the summer of 2009, the "green" company was ready to open its doors in the former Kister Kayat plant on U.S. 1.
"I started with one employee, me, and now I have 46," he said.
Offering a business what it is looking for is a key to the economic development of a region.
"You have to wear the right dress," said Volusia County's Economic Development Director Phil Ehlinger.
He said when a company expresses interest in the area, the agency puts together a package of resources available no matter where in the county it may be. That way a prospect can see if the assembled pieces of the puzzle will fit together.
Timing also plays a role. While there may have been hesitancy in Southeast Volusia in the past, New Smyrna Beach and Edgewater officials, working with both the public and private sectors, are now taking a proactive approach toward boosting the region's economic future.
NEW APPROACH, NEW ATTITUDE
Using citizen advisory boards, economic road maps, financial incentives and regional resources, city leaders and staff members are working, in some cases for the first time, to develop a coordinated framework on which to build new employment opportunities and diversify their tax bases.
"That signals a new direction for the city," said Tony Otte, New Smyrna Beach's interim economic development director.
Ehlinger said in the past difficulties such as a lack of available sites and advanced planning, coupled with reluctance from some residents and officials to encourage economic development, let some possibilities slip away.
Today, likely because residents hope to keep their quality of life, and want to shift the tax burden from the residential sector to a more diverse revenue source, attitudes have changed, he said.
Much of Southeast Volusia's economy has long been based on residential construction, tourism or commercial fishing and agriculture. There have been some industrial successes -- Edgewater's boat manufacturers -- although these remained in the minority.
"In the past, there was no vision to pass from council to council or from city manager to city manager," said Edgewater City Manager Tracey Barlow. However, with the recent adoption of his city's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, that is no longer the case.
The document, funded by a $10,000 grant from Volusia County's Department of Economic Development, spells out city strengths: location, industrial site availability, industrial labor force, a business friendly environment and a good quality of life.
It goes on to recommend officials build on existing creators -- boat building, recreational equipment, commercial and industrial products, in addition to "green technology" and entertainment, recreation and leisure services which take advantage of its waterfront location.
But there are negatives as well. The plan spells out that Edgewater needs to work on communications networks, a workforce lacking high-tech skills, community identity, urban services and amenities, along with a high property tax rate.
Not all of the proposals recommended are theory. The City Council on Monday formalized a variety of temporary impact fee deferments or reductions based on the number of new jobs a business might bring to the area.
One proposal is to offer $2,000 per job for nonresidential development, an incentive that would sunset after one year
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
New Smyrna Beach's economic push has been coordinated by Mayor Adam Barringer, who not only fulfilled a campaign promise to develop a roadmap similar to Edgewater's for his community, but also heads the economic development advisory board recommended as part of that document.
Barringer's plan sets numerous goals that include: assess and improve the image of the city; keep the public informed about various changes; review and possibly amend policies in place to provide business assistance; and expand performance measures for the city's largest economic engine -- tourism.
Currently, the city offers business improvement grants and beautification projects in core business areas through its Community Redevelopment Agency.
New Smyrna Beach's road map also encourages implementation of a hospitality training program and stimulating development of hotel and convention facilities, such as the proposed Hampton Inn project on Flagler Avenue.
Working with the developer, the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency smoothed the way for the project in terms of financial and land use change assistance to help the hotel become a reality.
Barringer believes New Smyrna Beach's greatest asset follows the real estate adage: location, location, location.
"We have the beach, the Intracoastal Waterway and New Smyrna Beach is a prime location for development," he said. "We are also in close proximity to Interstate 95 and Orlando."
Additionally, the city has been developing a list of shovel-ready or move-in commercial and industrial locations, which it will market to various prospects. That focus takes precedence over efforts to target specific types of companies.
"These sites are very important," Otte said. "We have to focus on the sites available and what is the best fit," whether light manufacturing, offices or showrooms.
TEAM PLAYER, SKILLED WORKERS
In addition to the cities and Volusia County, a possible future player in Southeast Volusia is the recently established partnership known as Team Volusia.
The private-public effort is being developed through the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce to promote economic development countywide in collaboration with city and county governments.
"Volusia County is not even on the radar screen in terms of economic development," Team Volusia's interim president George Mirabal said. "What we get is by accident."
However, that could change if the region uses existing assets to attract new development -- composite manufacturing linked to the boat building industry, for example, Mirabal said.
The collaboration took a step forward Tuesday night when New Smyrna Beach officials decided to invest $25,000 to be part of Team Volusia's executive committee.
Another positive for the region pushed by both the cities and economic development programs is a quality work force, according to an executive at one of Southeast Volusia's largest employers -- Boston Whaler and its sister boat manufacturer Brunswick Commercial and Governmental Products.
"A work force is a critical asset," said Boston Whaler president John Ward. "Boat building is all about people."
While neither Ward nor Brunswick's Jennifer Butera were in their respective jobs when Whaler decided to relocate from Massachusetts to Central Florida, both indicated the current atmosphere makes it easy to stay.
While there have been some successes on a large scale, New Smyrna Beach's Barringer sees the region as an incubator of small business growth.
"We are essentially a beach town," Barringer said, although anything is possible.
"Maybe I will be surprised one day."
Whatever form it may take, Southeast Volusia is talking tough about creating a more diverse economy. Now it must turn those words and plans into deeds and results.