Planning commission agrees to help with formation of single economic development group


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The Oil Region Chamber of Business and Industry, which would encompass all or most of 17 existing agencies, is unveiled.

The first round in an attempt to combine economic development agencies and related organizations into a single, cohesive group - one specifically aimed at revitalizing Venango County's fortunes - met with success Wednesday night as the county planning commission signed on to the concept.

A 30-year cycle that has produced numerous studies pegged to the county's economy, all showing the region in steep decline, has failed to stem the tide, argued Jack Crawford, a Franklin City Council member and chairman of the Economic Development Innovation Coalition.

The coalition, organized in response to the release in February of the Bosworth Study, a tome that described Venango County and the surrounding area as mired in an "economic crisis," has been working to address one of the study's top priorities. That priority is the reorganization of the 17 Venango County groups into one workable, accountable and multi-purpose economic development system.

"This is where we are: we're fighting over smaller pieces of an ever shrinking pie, working with less every day and not getting it done. ...We have to take a look at the bigger picture," Crawford told the planning commission. He said the coalition was charged with "coming up with a structure" that would jointly address the county's economic woes.

In the first public unveiling of what that new system would look like, Crawford introduced the Oil Region Chamber of Business and Industry, a new organization that would encompass all or most of the 17 existing agencies. That roster includes chambers of commerce, the Tourist Promotion Agency, workforce development group, Oil City Community Development Corp., Venango Economic Development Corp. and more.

A general outline, one that Crawford readily admitted is "only a working model," shows a membership roster (similar to a chamber of commerce), followed by a board of directors and a president/CEO. Under their direction, separate units would work on marketing/membership, events, grant writing, financing and lease management, economic development, business incubation, government relations, revolving loan fund and more.

"This is just to start a conversation and it is not set in stone. These boxes (units) are not people, they are responsibilities. ... We are at a critical point and what are we going to do about it?" Crawford asked.

Among the issues he addressed were:

- In response to a member's question about "just what is wrong with our present system," Crawford said the sheer number of agencies working on one form or another of economic development simply fragments the system.

"We have separate organizations, separate boards of directors, separate projects. And at the same time, our population continues to decline," Crawford said.

- The legalities involved in combining private and public organizations will have to be sorted out by experts, he said. The coalition approached the problem from a strategic method and has not addressed "the brass tacks of putting it all together."

"How do you merge an organization with half a million dollars, or one with $3.5 million in real estate, or another with $10,000? You can say you are doing it. Will it happen? I don't know...It is a maneuver of faith to give your assets to one organization," he said.

Bob Murray, chairman of the county commissioners, said dealing with different funding sources can be managed. Murray said the county's human services department "has 50 different funding streams (charitable agencies, various state and federal departments) and we manage it."

- Crawford said federal and state legislators whose districts include Venango County have committed to helping with the consolidation of agencies and groups. Their help will be needed in dealing with "bureaucracies" that may impede the merger, he said.

- Some accommodations may be made to facilitate the project, he added.

"The reality may be that all these things may not come together. For example, land (in an industrial park) may be kept by the city but a lease agreement made," Crawford said.

- Rick Flack, a member of both the coalition and the planning commission, cautioned members not to "jump too far ahead."

"We need to do step one and we're talking about step 10....We need to figure out how to do this...because what we have now is flat not working," Flack said.

- Crawford was quick to note there have been notable successes achieved by individual organizations and agencies, but the benefits are limited.

"No one has been more successful than FICDA (the Franklin Industrial/Commercial Development Authority) or the Franklin Chamber of Commerce. But the City of Franklin has not. ...We need to do it better," Crawford said.

- Dan Brockett, a planning commission member, said the commission should be part of a larger organization but worried that the panel, which is charged by state code to have certain land use regulatory powers, might lose its autonomy.

"I don't want planning to fall under marketing or economic development. That is not negotiable," Brockett said.

In response to Brockett's concern, the planning commission unanimously agreed that the coalition should "pursue a consensus to build a new organization." However, a second motion added that "the planning commission should not be subordinated to any other economic development function."

The planning commission is the second county agency to sign on to the consolidation concept. Crawford said the Venango Economic Development Corp., the lead economic agency, voted earlier to support the consolidation.

"I'm taking this message, meeting by meeting, to the other organizations in the near future," he said.

At the same time, the county is awaiting an addendum to the Bosworth Study. The county commissioners arranged for FutureWorks, a Massachusetts-based company that prepared the Bosworth information, to do a shorter study focused only on Venango County. That $26,000 report, contracted for in late August, is due for completion at the end of this month.