If there's one issue that seems to dominate the 2012 election across most local races, it's economic development.There are not enough jobs or there's not the right kind. Collier County's in debt and many say it has the reputation of being unfriendly to business.
In the race for Collier County Commission, it's economic development that gets the candidates talking and voters asking questions. At a recent League of Women Voters' candidate forum, for example, the first several questions were dominated by questions about improving the business climate.
When it comes to jobs, the commission candidates all have ideas. It will be up to voters to decide — starting in the Aug. 14 primary — which ideas they value most.
Steve Cosgrove, a commission candidate in District 1, said there is an anti-business climate in Collier County, which is an issue, in part, with the county's wasteful spending and $670 million debt.
Cosgrove said he would like to take the positions for the Economic Development Office and put them under the growth management division.
"Rather than have an administrator, I would put together a regulatory review team to look at state, federal and county regulations to determine what we can do better," he said. "I would work with the (Collier Building Industry Association) and other organizations to get their input. We have to consider what we can do to improve eGovernment so a business owner does not have to spend an hour or two on Horseshoe Drive or hire someone to spend the time there."
Cosgrove said he would like to see the county commissioners implement efficiencies that have already found, not do more years of research.
"We need a fresh set of eyes," he said. "We need to set the tone that we can be efficient, instead of No. 1 in wasteful per capita spending on government."
District 1 Commissioner Donna Fiala said her district is ripe for new development, with three new developments approved and a couple more that are moving along.
East Naples and Marco Island are also ripe for redevelopment, she said. Fiala sees opportunity in the Bayshore/Gateway Triangle district, adding that her dream would be to see a boutique hotel, retail shops and restaurants.
"You can get to everything from this area — the beach, the mall, the restaurants along Fifth Avenue," she said. "Everything is awaiting redevelopment. And everything to do with that has to do with jobs."
Fiala said she would like to see Collier County be a leader in medical tourism and said District 1 would be the perfect area for that investment, as it is between two hospitals — NCH Downtown Naples Hospital and Physicians Regional - Collier Boulevard.
Commissioner Tom Henning said the whole country is facing economic hardship. The county's $670 million debt needs to get down, he said, and would be his focus in the next four years.
"We can substantially reduce our debt within 10 years if we have some discipline," he said. "If we have such a high debt, that is not good for job growth."
Henning said he would support new and expanding high wage jobs, similar to those at Arthrex, which export a product or service outside of Collier. He said the county needs to be more inclusive with its economic development, reaching out to not just the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, but to the former CEOs that live in the community and other organizations that want to be involved.
"The only way that communities have made a difference in economic development is to put a lot of resources into it and the only way we're going to do that is a ballot initiative," he said. "That is where my colleagues failed with Jackson Labs. ... We need to be inclusive to the residents in Collier County and those in decision making (positions) when we talk about new taxes or raising taxes."
District 3 Commission candidate Bill McDaniel said the county needs to look at a diversification of its employment and possibly providing incentives for non-construction related industries. He said he would also like to streamline the county's permitting process.
"It should not take a business 18, 24 months or longer to get through the permitting process," he said. "The regulations that we the residents have allowed to be created around us provide for a greater propensity for people not to abide by the regulations that we have in place."
McDaniel said he would like to explore the possibility of a temporary moratorium on impact fees.
"It would temporarily open the doors of Collier County," he said. "It would make a statement that we want businesses to come here."
District 5 Commissioner Jim Coletta touted the jobs Collier County has managed to secure in the last four years, including those at Arthrex's medical manufacturing plant in Ave Maria, the expansion of several Immokalee businesses and the commission's approval of three new shopping centers in Golden Gate Estates.
If he is re-elected, Coletta said he will stay engaged with local businesses and act as an ambassador to bring jobs to Collier County.
"I think we need to continue to look for ways to cut time and costs down and support the businesses we do have," he said.
His opponent, candidate, Tim Nance said jobs and re-energizing the economy is the No. 1 task Collier County will face for the next decade. "Going back as far as 10 or 12 years, we've talked about it, we've spent lots of money with consultants. We haven't taken any action," he said.
Nance said the county has to look at its policies, at how the county applies impact feels and the way other counties are operating to find efficiencies.
"We need to take some strong action, evaluate what they're doing and get Collier going," he said "Why is it so much easier to do business in Hillsborough County?"