Saturday, February 25, 2012

COMMENTARY: Leesburg shouldn't renew wasteful consulting contract

By Lauren Ritchie

Oh, Leesburg, Leesburg. When will you ever learn? When will you eeeevvvver learn?

If I had a guitar, I'd sing the ballad and strum along. Be grateful that I don't.

The city that spends money as if it came from a Monopoly game is at it again. It's no biggie this time, just another $20,000 or so that could go to run a kids' sports league, for example, instead of funding an ego-driven, expensive chimera that never will come to pass.

In September, city commissioners were asked to pay $8,000 a month for 12 months — $96,000 — for a consultant without qualifications to go out and sell the idea of the Florida Energy and Aerospace Technology Park.

They choked on that one. After all, they'd just laid out $100,500 for a sophomoric report by another of those "experts" who brought in nothing but hot air for what most experts agree is an idea with disastrous timing.

Instead, they compromised and decided to pay Jerry Bond, an architect from Tennessee, $3,000 a month for six months, for a total of $18,000. His pay was to rise immediately to $8,000 a month if one of the companies he was courting signed a contract to come to Leesburg. Big surprise: That didn't happen.

They did, however, lay out $19,936.49 — that includes expenses — to the Bond Organization, which consists of Jerry.

City Manager Jay Evans said last week that he'll be asking commissioners to renew Bond's contract, even though he now acknowledges that the two companies Bond was closest to signing — an engine manufacturer and a light-sport aircraft firm owned by the same people — likely aren't coming.

In addition, Bond has no experience and no documented success in doing what the city manager wants to rehire him for, which is creating business, marketing, finance and site plans for the city's proposed technology park and recruiting new business to the park.

A six-page report on Bond's work shows that he has been busy, delivering 150 "presentations," identifying 100 companies that would be a good fit for the proposed park, networking his head off, exploring "a potential opportunity" to establish an incubator for companies that work with algae (translation: spend more city money), developing a "master plan" for the park, writing a business plan, trying to sniff out grants for the project, drawing impressive pictures and dreaming about what types of companies could go in existing buildings.

"I am beginning to get inquiries from contacts that I did not initiate," Bond's report says. "This situation tells me that someone was talking about the Florida Energy and Aerospace Technology Park, someone else heard the story, and now they want to know more about the project from us."

What the report doesn't say is that Bond brought one solid proposal to Leesburg, and that was to take the gift of a wrecked airplane from another city with the idea that Leesburg would spend thousands to repair it so schoolchildren could be exposed to aviation.

Some commissioners aren't excited about his performance.

"There's nothing happening, and nothing is going to happen," Commissioner Bill Polk said. "I'm recommending we give him a going-away party."

Commissioner Lewis Puckett, who has been in aviation businesses for 50 years around Leesburg, said paying Bond any more would be "a gross waste of money right now."

They are right. Bond should not be rehired, and not just because he's unqualified and didn't produce anything tangible in six months.

It's because Leesburg, while pursuing the laudable goal of bringing jobs to the city — has made a serious miscalculation about what will bring jobs and gain the city renown.

Building expensive runways in an expensive park that caters to iffy startups in which the city would invest isn't the way to go with taxpayer money. Already, the city has $120,000 in this bad idea. Think of the ways that money could have been spent more wisely. They are legion.

Leesburg needs to take a deep breath and look around. The city has a thriving set of car dealers on U.S. Highway 441 around its airport. The city should focus on that area. What support businesses might work there? How can Leesburg help the ones that already exist so they will stay?

In addition, unoccupied buildings that don't involve the city paying for costly infrastructure already exist at the airport. Why not work to fill those? Economic-development efforts should be focused on making Leesburg the snazziest little general aviation airport in Central Florida, the destination of choice for the casual pilot to connect with other enthusiasts.

That would be a natural fit with the seaplane traffic that Tavares already has attracted.

These certainly aren't the only ideas that would work for Leesburg. They're simply obvious ones. Leesburg is making economic development far more expensive and complicated than it need be.

Commissioners on Monday should decline to rehire Bond and instead pursue more attainable goals.

By Lauren Ritchie  

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