GEM cancels vote on development reform

PERKINS TWP. The Greater Erie Marketing Group has canceled a scheduled Aug. 28 board meeting to vote
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

PERKINS TWP.

The Greater Erie Marketing Group has canceled a scheduled Aug. 28 board meeting to vote on a reorganization plan to create a new economic development agency that would absorb GEM.

The board was to vote on a "one-stop shop" for economic development in Erie County to replace GEM. The meeting was delayed to give GEM time to explore another option: using the county's existing Community Improvement Corporation to organize Erie County's economic development efforts.

GEM's executive committee will meet at 1:30 p.m. today at the County Services Center with Jerry Hayes, the executive director of Defiance County Economic Development. Hayes will explain how the Defiance County community improvement corporation works as a public-private partnership.

Erie County Commissioner Tom Ferrell said the idea of utilizing Erie County's CIC came up while he and GEM Executive Director Mark Litten were visiting a local company that is considering relocating to another area of Erie County and expanding. Using the CIC would allow local governments to act quickly when a company makes a request, he said.

He declined to provide any specifics about the company and said there had been no written inquiries from it about the expansion plan.

"That's confidential," he said.

Another issue that has arisen in the past and come up again is that a CIC would allow GEM's two employees, including Litten, to come under the state retirement system, Ferrell said.

Litten said the CIC was mentioned years before as a way to access the public retirement system for GEM.

With all of the talk about economic development, "it's an appropriate time to take a look at the issue now," Ferrell said.

Two members of the so-called gang of eight business leaders that helped launch a discussion in April on how to revamp economic development in Erie County say they're disappointed over the latest delay in forming a new group.

Ferrell was not involved with the discussions initiated by the group or the numerous meetings conducted by members of the Erie County Chamber of Commerce, which developed the reform plan.

Dennis Murray Jr., a city commissioner and member of the gang of eight, said the original immediate goals in April were to organize regular meetings of staff members in local governments to discuss development issues and to form a "one-stop shop" for economic development that would eliminate divisions across the county. The meetings are taking place, he said, but the one-stop shop still hasn't been set up.

The third task, figuring out the ultimate form that economic development would take, was known to be something that would take a while, Murray said, but the gang of eight figured the first two tasks could be carried out quickly.

"I am disappointed and frustrated it has taken us this long to get to this point," Murray said. "I think we've lost an awful lot of time."

Gang of eight member Doug Phares, publisher of the Sandusky Register and a member of GEM's executive committee, also is unhappy about the delay.

"At a time when our community is crying out for leadership, the continuing inaction of this board denies opportunity for growth," Phares wrote in an e-mail to other members of the executive committee. "I am saddened for the community because this insures a continuation of the same practices that have yielded the blighted economy we suffer today."

But other members of GEM's executive committee said a delay of a few days so GEM can do its homework is only prudent.

James Smith, chairman of GEM's executive committee and vice president for economic development at Bowling Green State University, said it's still his goal to have a recommendation on a new organization ready by Sept. 1 and to have a meeting of the full GEM board next month to consider the plan.

"We really want to do due diligence," he said Smith.

The Erie Community Improvement Corp. was formed in 1973. In recent years, it has been the vehicle for county commissioners to provide money to GEM.

All three county commissioners -- Ferrell, Bill Monaghan and Nancy McKeen -- said they plan to attend today's meeting and will try to decide whether expanding the CIC's role would be a good idea.

Talking about the CIC is an "exploratory exercise," Monaghan said.

"We want to make sure we have looked at all of the avenues, all of the approaches that could be taken."