The direction of the EDC
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:49 PM
"A recent controversy over a proposed gas station in Freeland has pushed the Island District Economic Development Council and its executive director, Tom Shaughnessy, into the spotlight.While the EDC has occasionally drawn fire from critics since its creation in 1985, today even some mainstream business people are wondering what the EDC's role is, and what it should be during a time of growth and change on the island.Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce Director Rita Kuller said the future of the EDC is currently in question and Shaughnessy, who took the job a year and a half ago, is standing at an important juncture in his new career.Tom has the next step in front of him, she said. At this point the EDC needs a strong, complex leader. The jury is still out on Tom.Shaughnessy can either build coalitions and bring people together, she said, or bring politics into his job and tear people apart. While his critics say he's already created divisions that are irreparable, Shaughnessy says he's been unfairly targeted and has acted within the bounds of his position.But understanding or even defining what Shaughnessy does as director of the Island District EDC, which covers both Island County and San Juan County, is difficult even for Shaughnessy himself.He says his work is both complex and subtle. Much of his job happens behind the scenes, he says, and calls on his knowledge of governmental processes and red tape from his years as an Island County commissioner. He spends lots of time talking over the phone to people in power.It's no secret that I was hired for who I know, he said.Shaughnessy said he facilitates economic development.Some critics, who include North Whidbey business people, say that Shaughnessy, a Camano Island resident, has done little in his position but anger some South Whidbey residents.When asked what he's accomplished in his $51,000-a-year job, Shaughnessy points to the many state and other officials that he's brought to the island to discuss important issues. He brought Gov. Gary Locke, for example, to Whidbey Island earlier this year to speak at a Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce luncheon.At the meeting, Locke promised to sign any bill that would designate Island County as rural, which would mean $400,000 extra tax dollars for local government. Shaughnessy said he's lobbied hard to get the designation and will push even harder in the future.Shaughnessy has taken the last few months to introduce the EDC's Business and Retention Plan to local governmental bodies, although a host of volunteers and former Whidbey Island Naval Air Station commander Larry Munns actually did the study.Then there's the EDC's annual Uniquely Whidbey Trade Fair and Home Show, which brings about 125 businesses together to showcase what they do to about 3,000 potential customers.In addition, Don Piercy of InterWest Bank, a member of the EDC's executive committee, said the EDC has done important work over the last year to educate the community about the economic impacts of everything from initiatives to the Growth Management Act.When asked to name some jobs he has helped to create on Whidbey Island, Shaughnessy points to the new Deception Pass Visitor Center owned by Freeland contractor Chris Kelly. There's others, he said, but he can't think of them.Kelly said that Shaughnessy and the EDC helped his project get through the process.He helped explain to the planning department how the business will help the county as a whole, Kelly said.It's this part of Shaughnessy's job that has gotten him in trouble with some people, including some EDC board members. Shaughnessy said it's his job to help anyone with any business-related project that comes before him. He said he will support any developers with the process of getting any project completed.If they're members, we've going to support them, he said.But John Graham, an EDC board member and head of the Citizens for Sensible Development, said Shaughnessy and the EDC should not be blind to community concerns about certain development projects. Graham argues that Shaughnessy goes too far when he endorses projects, as when the EDC became entangled in the dispute over a proposed Exxon station in Freeland.Shaughnessy admits that sometimes he does go too far in helping a project along, and has been chastised by the board for doing so, but he said he never actually endorsed the Exxon station. He said he wrote a draft letter to the county commissioners in support of the project, but the letter was never sent.Graham said that's because Freeland residents raised such a stink over the issue.Under former director John Hitt, Graham said the EDC played a vital role as a middleman, or voice of reason, between competing interests in the community. But under Shaughnessy, he said the EDC can no longer play that role because it's seen as a mouthpiece for business, growth and anti-growth-management ideas.I'm concerned that the EDC has lost its way, he said.Nancy Conard disagrees. Conard, mayor of Coupeville and vice president of the EDC board, said the EDC has never gone on record in support of a project. She said the EDC's role is to help people jump through hoops, which Shaughnessy is an expert at.Shaughnessy said he hasn't taken an anti-environment or pro-growth stance, but has remained unbiased and has always acted appropriately.He points out that the EDC is working for the good of all county residents by helping to create jobs, keeping property taxes low and providing services by enlarging the sales tax base.Everyone benefits from a healthy economy, he said.Island EDCThe Island District Economic Development Council is a non-profit agency started in Island County in 1985. It is funded by $40,000 from the state, $32,000 from Island County, $23,000 from membership, plus there's $20,000 in pass through funds, EDC Director Tom Shaughnessy said. While the EDC also services San Juan County, it doesn't get any funding from that county.The Island District EDC's mission is defined as to undertake those activities and projects that will most effectively retain and create job opportunities while respecting unique community values and environmental integrity. "