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LECANTO — Andy Houston was so impressed he said so.
“This is the best day we’ve spent in the seven years we’ve been here,” the Crystal River city manager said.
Houston was referring to a broad presentation Thursday by consultant Jeannette Goldsmith to the Citrus County Economic Development Council.
Goldsmith, an expert in economic development whose visit was sponsored by Progress Energy Florida, developed a detailed plan of observation after just one day of meeting with economic leaders and touring the county.
Her bottom line: The county has good intentions, but doesn’t have the tools in place today to attract manufacturing companies.
The big reason, she said, is the county’s industrial parks are not served by water and sewer, or they don’t have vacant buildings available for companies to move in.
And, she said, the county has no specific plans to serve those sites with utilities.
Goldsmith also said the EDC lacks a vision of what it wants to achieve with economic development.
County Commission Chairman Joe Meek, who chairs the EDC as well, said Goldsmith’s observations were spot on.
“It was exactly what we needed to hear,” Meek said Friday. “It’s exactly some of the things we’ve been talking about, the absolute necessity to move forward on some of these initiatives. We must get a long-term vision and plan in place.”
Meek said one of new Executive Director Don Taylor’s main focuses is developing a plan for economic development.
Goldsmith, who hails from South Carolina and has 17 years in site selection and economic-development counseling, said the county has a lot to offer in education, work force development, available property and easy access to Interstate 75.
Those attributes mean little, however, without locations that are site ready with utilities, permitting, roads and buildings already in place.
The areas that Citrus County is focused on, including the Inverness Airport business park and the new enterprise zone in northwest Citrus County, have none of those, she said.
While the county is working with the city of Inverness to bring water and sewer to the airport business park, Goldsmith said businesses looking for locations want to see detailed plans for utility expansions that include specific dates and costs.
Josh Wooten, chief executive officer of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, noted the difficulty of achieving Goldsmith’s recommendations centers on money.
The EDC receives about $110,000 annually from the county and has one full-time executive director.
“We don’t have the staff to pull it all together and stay on it,” he said.
Goldsmith said she understands the county’s situation, but said it needed a cohesive plan and vision before it could target industries for relocation or expansion.
Meek said that Citrus County’s per capita spending for economic development is among the lowest in the state. But he also said the county has stumbled along for years without specific direction and it’s time for the community to make a change.
“We’ve had decades-plus of a complete lack of any type of economic policy in this county,” he said. “We’ve been isolationists for years. When you have an expert like Goldsmith come in here and say this is the thing you have to do, it points out the importance of us doing it.”
Five plusses and minuses for Citrus County to attract industry, as outlined by Jeannette Goldsmith:
* Diverse potential sites — however, none of them “ready” for immediate occupancy; no buildings; no plans to make them ready.
* Access to rail nearby and easy “connectivity” through county — however, lack of direct access to interstate.
* Wide availability of water and sewer — however, not all industrial sites have water/sewer and there are no plans in place for water/sewer at other sites.
* Available work force and education — however, skills gap between construction trades and manufacturing.
* Dedicated economic development leaders — however, no clear vision nor strategic plan.
* Select one or two sites and invest in getting them “shovel” ready.
* Identify empty buildings for reuse.
* Engage in a county-wide economic visioning plan.
* Identify target industries.
* Develop a proactive marketing plan.