CHIPLEY — County leaders and officials began discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the area during Tuesday’s Economic Development Symposium.
The symposium was the second in an ongoing series of meetings sponsored by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
“We want to develop a plan, a vision of what we want the county to be in the future,” said Jim Brook, executive director of Opportunity Florida.
Part of the process of developing that plan will include working through a S.W.O.T. analysis — a process of discussing the county’s Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats, Brook said.
Tuesday night the goal was to work through the first two topics: Strengths and Weaknesses. The audience participated in a discussion of the pros and cons of Washington County.
“We need to know what is out there affecting us positively and negatively,” said Chamber Executive Director Ted Everett. “Then we can begin creating a road map for the future of the county.”
The strengths identified for Washington County included fine medical facilities, interstate access and railroad and the quality of life found here in the Panhandle.
The weaknesses included lack of water/sewer infrastructure and the lack of properties available for industrial development.
The Chamber of Commerce went through a similar process in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Former Chamber Director O.L. “Ole” Ellis Jr. opened the symposium by telling the audience about his early experiences with the Washington County Chamber and some of the early successes of the county, including WestPoint Home and Wal-Mart.
“When we look back, we can learn from past successes, and see what we did right, and what we did wrong,” Ellis said. One of the early tasks the chamber faced in working on economic development was the preparation of a slide show to use to promote the county before both state officials and potential industries which may be looking to locate in Florida.
“We had to prepare an inventory of our assets — Washington-Holmes Technical Center, the Department of Transportation, the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, the Interstate — and then we worked on our marketing technology,” Ellis said. That technology in 1980 included a slide show, which eventually was upgraded to a VHS cassette.
Ellis also stressed the importance of cooperation between the city and county officials in landing important economic developments such as WestPoint Home and Wal-Mart. It took work between the County Commissioners, the City Council and the Planning Commissioners to put together the properties, to fund the needed upgrades to utilities, and to present a professional front to the potential industries.
“If a local effort is not in place, then the desired results will not be achieved,” he said.
“Above all else, industries are looking for stability,” said Terry Ellis, manager of WestPoint Home and son of Ole Ellis.
A strong commitment by local business and civic leaders is absolutely necessary for economic development success, Everett said.
“The reason we were able attract people back in the ‘80s was we had land and a building we could show them,” Everett said. “Right now, if an industry were to contact me, I don’t have anything to show them. Nothing.”
Everett said the adage “homes follow jobs, and retail follows homes” applies to economic development, and to have growth in Washington County, the county has to increase the number of jobs it has to offer.
“Right now, Washington County is exporting 75 percent of its workforce,” Everett said. “Most of our people have to go out of the county to work.”
“The nine most important factors in economic development are attitude, attitude, attitude; commitment, commitment, commitment; and patience, patience patience,” Ole Ellis said.