Hat in hand, EDC seeks funding

A two-person agency dedicated to enhancing and diversifying Island County’s economy has fallen onto hard times and has turned to the city of Oak Harbor for help.

Some $25,000 worth of help.

City officials may be reluctant to fund the Island County Economic Development Council’s entire budget shortfall, but it looks like Island County commissioners are willing to work with Oak Harbor to fill in the financial hole.

The roadblock, however, may be that a city councilman and a commissioner both suggested that Langley, Coupeville and perhaps the ports should also pay their share. But the EDC doesn’t plan to ask the other cities or ports to contribute.

The problem began when the Island County Development Council, based in Coupeville, lost $25,000 in funding when the state auditor’s office told Island County officials that they cannot give money from the rural county sales tax to the EDC. The so-called “.08 funds” are supposed to finance public facilities serving economic development purposes.

The county had to pay back $164,300 erroneously given to the EDC over the years. For 2006, commissioners chose to fund the basic $32,500 for the EDC, but not the extra $25,000 intended for an outreach program.

Former Oak Harbor Councilman John LaFond, president of the EDC, asked city officials to fund the missing $25,000, noting that the city has only contributed $1,000 a year for the last 10 years. He emphasized that the city officials were not at fault because the EDC never requested more funding in the past.

LaFond sent the council a long letter, listing the many EDC activities. Most of the routine activities fall under the category of business assistance — that includes start-up inquiries, expansion assistance, demographics information, financing issues, and the sale or purchase of existing businesses.

In addition, the EDC worked to keep the Navy base open, lobbied the Legislature to obtain .08 percent funding for the county, worked to get the Oak Harbor airport re-opened and hosts tours of local businesses, WorkSource and Skagit Valley College.

The EDC’s most visible activity is the annual Uniquely Whidbey Trade Fair and Home Show held at Coupeville High School every October.

LaFond argued that it makes sense for Oak Harbor to fund the EDC because the city benefits from economic development. He pointed out that about 44 percent of retail sales generated in Island County last year was in the city.

Yet LaFond concedes that it’s difficult for an agency like the EDC to quantify or prove that it accomplishes its goal of retaining or attracting business.

“The question of ‘what have you done for me lately” is hard to answer,” he said. “I can say we helped more than 50 clients in Oak Harbor alone this year.”

In an interview, Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell admitted he has some skepticism about the EDC’s role.

“I always question what government can really do about creating jobs anyway,” he said. “I don’t know if they can take credit for any business coming to town.”

Nonetheless, McDowell and the other commissioner have always supported the EDC.

“Sometimes you just have to have faith,” he said, “that people who are working diligently are out there making a difference. ... If I didn’t think it had some merit, I wouldn’t continue funding it.”

While the commissioner have long provided the “basic” funding for the EDC of $30,000 or so, two years ago they agreed to give the agency an extra $26,000 a year from the rural county sales tax for an outreach program.

LaFond said the extra $26,000 was used to send Executive Director Sharon Hart to one or two trade shows a year and to develop brochures to hand out at events and fairs.

LaFond said the extra money also helps fund personnel. Under the proposed 2005 budget, Hart would make $50,000 and the administrative assistant would make $30,000 a year.

McDowell said he was surprised when Commissioner Mike Shelton suggested at a recent Council of Governments meeting that the county would increase its share of the funding if the cities and port district follow suit.

McDowell said he also would be willing to increase the county’s share if “the cities thought it was important.”

“All the cities receive benefit from this,” he said.

At the Dec. 20 council meeting in Oak Harbor, Councilman Paul Brewer also said he would like to see Langley and Coupeville contribute more to the EDC.

It may be a tough sell. Although the EDC helps many businesses in South Whidbey, LaFond admits that officials on South Whidbey may not be hung-ho about the agency.

“The southern half of the island hasn’t been involved in economic development,” he said. However, the Port of South Whidbey did start what became the EDC’s trade fair.

In the end, the City Council tabled the EDC’s request for funding until their economic development workshop in late January.

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