Commission mulls future JDA funding

An hour-long work session May 26 between the Camden County Board of Commissioners and the Joint Development Authority included some pointed questions about the funding of economic development.

The Camden County Joint Development Authority is an autonomous political subdivision, but receives tax revenues through the Camden County Board of Commissioners.  

JDA chairman Charlie Smith Jr. said that if the commissioners did not believe the authority was the correct way to recruit new businesses and expand the local tax base, then the JDA would willingly disband and return all funds to the county. However, he said, if the county is going to fund economic development through the JDA, it better be prepared to make a long-term commitment.  

Smith told commissioners the JDA had held onto much of its money and has been very frugal with its funds, including the retention of $750,000 to help the commissioners fund Spaceport Camden, if necessary. He said the reality is that communities must have funds available to compete for big businesses.

“You’ve got to have that money ready when it comes,” Smith said. 

Executive director James Coughlin stated that the JDA’s goal is to have a $2-million incentive fund to entice new employers and a $2-million land acquisition fund to acquire product to sell. 

Coughlin said the JDA currently has two active projects at the former paper mill site in St. Marys that are related to a possible marine industrial complex, a marketing strategy conceived by the JDA. 

“I’m excited about what we are doing,” Smith said. 

County board chair Jimmy Starline told him, “No one thinks you’ve done anything.”

Starline said he understood that confidentiality agreements prevent the JDA from speaking about active projects, but he urged them to communicate as soon as legally possible about projects that didn’t come here, what we did to attract them and why they went somewhere else. 

“In most cases, they left because we didn’t have what they were looking for,” Smith said. 

Coughlin said most of the inquiries they get are from companies that want an existing building that is 50,000 to 60,000 square feet, a 30- to 32-foot ceiling and loading docks for trucks. He said the Georgia Department of Economic Development also said 85 percent of their projects were seeking existing facilities with those general specifications.

Because few buildings like that exist in Camden County, the JDA wants to construct another spec building at the county industrial park. However, Smith said the lack of a long-term funding commitment from the county, such as the ones found in counties all up and down the southeast coast, prevents the JDA from getting traditional bank loans to help finance the project. 

“The banks won’t lend money to anybody that doesn’t have any income … we don’t have any guaranteed long-range income,” he said.

Since the county began funding the JDA at a more competitive level of 1 mill of tax revenue two years ago, the JDA has been working to reacquire undeveloped lots in the county’s industrial park off of Interstate 95 and make it look like a place where businesses want to operate. 

Smith said when he joined the board a few years ago, the fence was falling down in places and lots were not uniformly cleared or graded. Since then, he said, the JDA has come a long way.

Coughlin gave a brief presentation about the JDA’s activities in 2016, which include: 

• contracting with Sheila McNeill as military liaison, thereby bringing more accountability for funds that were previously paid to a nonprofit, The Camden Partnership;

• working to promote the St. Marys mill site rezoning;

• negotiating with Tractor Supply on behalf of Kingsland;

• facilitating relocation of AgLogic to Camden County Industrial Park;

• hosting a submarine suppliers conference, with another planned next year;

• commissioning a wetlands assessment for Woodbine industrial park site and St. Marys Industrial Park;

• reacquiring 20 acres at Camden County Industrial Park;

• surveying and clearing industrial park properties. 

He also presented a copy of the JDA’s business plan for the upcoming year, which is based on the continuation of the funding it has received over the past two fiscal years.  

Starline also told the JDA representatives that citizens were concerned that the payroll of the JDA now exceeds the total funding that the authority previously received. 

Coughlin said he felt that was more of an indictment of how underfunded the authority used to be. Smith agreed, asking Starline if he would expect results to be greater at the JDA with the same payroll. Starline conceded that he would not. 

“We are not spending the resources we are allocated frivolously,” Smith said. 

The JDA has $2.4 million in total assets as of April 30, an increase of more than $1.2 million over the last two years, according to a brief presentation made by Coughlin at the meeting.  The authority has received approximately $1.3 million in annual funding for the last two fiscal years. 

Starline also questioned the addition of a contract between the JDA and McNeill, military affairs liaison, who also worked for the nonprofit advocacy group, The Camden Partnership. The partnership still pays for her travel, which helps her perform her duties, and the JDA pays her an annual contract of $55,000. 

Smith defended that expense, saying that McNeill provides invaluable public relations in an area upon which the local economy depends heavily. He said it was “an intangible,” but something that strong military communities have to do.

Commissioner Chip Keene, who did not qualify to seek another term when his expires this year, had some stern words for the board. 

Keene said Camden is a great place to live with some competitive advantages, but it is not so different than what many other communities can offer. He said it is not good enough to fund the JDA at 1 mill for a few years and then give up when there are not immediate results. 

“I think that’s bull. That’s what I think that is,” Keene said. “If you go to cut it off now … then you’re responsible for wasting the last two years of budget. You threw that down the tube.”

He questioned why the county pays so much toward educating students but not in helping to attract jobs so they can stay here. 

“To think you are going to have results in 24 months when you haven’t spent anything on it in the last 50 years is ridiculous to me,” Keene said. “If you are going to let the standard of living go into the toilet because you won’t fund economic development, then there’s a bunch of other stuff we need to start scratching off the list, too.”

Tribune & Georgian

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