Wednesday, July 16

County and chamber building and
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EDC vs. EDC, committee vs. council

[Note: The Lincoln/Logan County Chamber of Commerce EDC consists of two representatives from the county board, two representatives from the city council, two at-large (from the community) members and two representatives from the chamber. The county representatives ceased attending meetings a few months ago at the recommendation of the state's attorney.]

[JULY 16, 2003]  It happens: Two parties striving to the same end lose sight of what they are about. Differences of opinion, lack of adequate information, misperception of actions, sins of omission -- these and other accumulating issues over the last two years led to a rift in the relationship between the Lincoln/Logan County Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Council and the Logan County Board.

As a result the county board recently formed its own economic development committee. Both the chamber EDC and the county EDC have continued working toward economic development, but separately. Yet, each recognized that there are benefits of working together as one. The strength in unity and efficiency with increased resources, knowledge, experience and less redundancy all add up to less expense and more power to get things done.

So, at the invitation of the county, the two EDCs met on Monday evening to discuss how they might work together. Present for the chamber were past president of the chamber and EDC representative Todd Lowman, chamber director and EDC representative Bobbie Abbott and the new EDC director, Jeff Mayfield. Representing the new county EDC were Chuck Ruben, Bill Sahs, Terry Werth, Bob Farmer and David Hepler, with county board chair Dale Voyles presiding over the meeting.

Issues that led to the widening separation of the two entities were discussed at length until both parties appeared to have a general sense of resolution by meeting's end, nearly two hours later. As past failures were discussed item by item, each group conceded shortcomings and came away with a to-do list to get back on track.

Chairman Voyles set the tone of the meeting by explaining that the purpose of the county EDC is to get things rolling in the county. He also said that he believes that everyone involved in promoting business here has nothing but the best intentions. Lincoln Mayor Beth Davis, the chamber, the county board all share the same goals: to do what is best for the community. "Everybody wants to find out how we got to where we are. Everybody has some concerns," he said.

Open meetings

Voyles began by suggesting that the EDCs might work together if some of the current issues could be cleared up. Starting with the most current issue, he said that the county's legal adviser, State's Attorney Tim Huyett, has recommended that county representatives not attend meetings with the chamber EDC until it complies with open meetings requirements. In addition to the states attorney's advice, the board recently passed a resolution that requires any organization receiving money (since it is tax dollars) from them to make their meetings and minutes open to the public.

Abbott responded by asking, "Do you mean, will we comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act, or are you just asking if our meetings are open to the public?" She pointed out that the Illinois Open Meetings Act does not apply to the chamber, as it is a nongovernmental organization. It would be an unprecedented act for them to comply with that law.

Abbott assured the committee that the public has always had the option to attend their meetings, and they have never asked anyone who came to a meeting to leave. The meetings are not kept secret; the meeting times are published in the chamber newsletter and are at regular times, dates and locations. Anyone can come.

Lowman said, "If you're asking if our door is open to our meetings, yes."

Voyles cross-checked whether it would be OK for their representatives to attend the chamber EDC's meetings and then return to discuss matters with the county committee, which meets in a more public format. The major concern is that highly sensitive information is often divulged at these meetings, such as property acquisition, personal and business finances, contracts and so on. "We know what we can and cannot discuss," he said. Adjourning to a closed executive session affords privacy, but still, he asked, "Are you going to be OK with that?"

Abbott replied that that was not only acceptable but expected.

Resolution: Have Tim Huyett draft specific open meeting requirements.

Proposed commerce park

With that aside, Abbott took the lead and suggested that the relationship with the chamber might be looked at like other contracted services performed, such as accounting services. "Basically, the board has not provided money for anything that wasn't approved," Abbott said. "The economic development director answers questions, does marketing, provides business information and supplies an office. Tax money is honored."

The county agreed.

Then Abbott tentatively broached another subject. "The commerce park monster" seemed to be the greatest cause of separation, she suggested.

David Hepler responded by raising several issues that built distrust during that process.

1. The board was asked at their work session on Thursday evening to make an approval on Tuesday to purchase some expensive farm land at $11,000 per acre. He felt this was inappropriate amount of time to make such a large financial decision.


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2. In addition to insufficient time, not enough information was provided.

3. It was also suggested that the property could bypass normal zoning and go to a pre-annex. At that time Jeff Mayfield, the new director, took the question of annexation to the city attorney, Bill Bates, who first told him it would work. Mayfield then relayed that information to the state's attorney, Tim Huyett, who agreed he didn't see a problem.

However, before the Tuesday meeting the two lawyers met and discussed it further. Bates said there was no way that the annexation could be done. Neither lawyer got back to Mayfield, but the board did learn of the rezoning problem before the Tuesday meeting and didn't purchase the property.

Mayfield apologized that this happened, but explained that he couldn't control that the attorneys failed to inform him of their change of opinion.

Voyles, appearing to understand, said to Mayfield, "You have been the recipient of a crop planted before you. And it's turned up corn and beans, not flowers."

Two other issues surrounding the commerce development were raised. Voyles said that as of December it seemed as though all the economic focus was being put on the proposed commerce park, and other economic development was being allowed to slide.

David Hepler said that he has received complaints from some owners that the properties that they own have been discriminated against. The properties aren't even being suggested when potential buyers come to town.

Both Mayfield and Abbott assured the board that this simply is not the case. Mayfield said he has fielded a number of calls and always suggests all the properties that fit what the interested party is looking for.

Abbott conceded that their database for finding properties lacks, and that is an area she sees that they could develop.

Mayfield said, "Regardless of separation, I have fielded calls from Atlanta, Emden and Mount Pulaski. We have continued to meet business prospects, send out packets." He has also met with David Hawkinson and Tony Campbell several times, looking at possible development of a coal power plant at the Elkhart site. Mayfield reassured the committee that he follows every lead, provides information on properties according to what specs the party is expressing interest in, and he will continue to do so.

Abbott explained they have properties listed on their DECA website. "We always have taken care to promote available properties. I hope you don't feel we have promoted one site over another, she said.

The chamber EDC currently works from a demographic sheet they have of properties that are set up and zoned. Abbott said, though, there are many other properties that could be available out there. She conceded, "We have never had a good database to provide information." Maybe that is where their next focus ought to be, she indicated.

Hepler also brought up that in addition to what seemed like insufficient information and pressure to make commitments in an untimely manner, he had also requested past meeting minutes from the county EDC reps and from the past EDC director, Mark Smith, which he never got. "Because we are being asked to spend big money, I need information," he said.

Lowman committed to Hepler that he would get the minutes of past meetings that he had requested in the past. Minutes dating several years back were in Hepler's hands by Tuesday evening's meeting.

Financial commitment

As a final matter, the group discussed financial support for the chamber EDC. Lowman said that for five years the county relegated $5,000 per year. The last two years they upped that commitment to $25,000. However, last year they received only $15,000. Payment stopped in July 2002. He said, "If you believe in it, fund it. If you don't, don't support it."

It was realized that the county method of disbursement had changed without informing the chamber. The county was waiting for a request for the funds.

Resolution: The committee proposed a payment schedule like their other payments made to organizations where funds are approved and sent out quarterly. They presented this to the board of the whole and it was approved on Tuesday evening. They will be receiving past-due funds for the first two quarters right away.

The chamber sees the new county EDC committee as a positive advantage to get economic development rolling here in Logan County.

The joint consensus between the EDCs is, "Let's get moving."

[Jan Youngquist]    

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