By SHELLY WILKISON
Determined to end the City’s dependence on economic development revenue they say has been used as a “slush fund” for city expenses, Economic Development Corp. directors set in motion last week a series of projects designed to grow Liberty Hill’s business community.
“We need to have a presence and become more involved, so we can say Liberty Hill is open for business,” said EDC President Frank Spinosa. “In the past, the economic development fund has been used as a slush fund and we’ve spent zero toward developing businesses in this town.”
Meeting for the first time with interim City Manager Greg Boatright, who was hired in May to also serve as Director of the EDC, the Board was united in its commitment to spend EDC funds to help existing businesses and attract new ones. In fact, a series of unanimous votes appeared to signify a new spirit of cooperation among members who spoke positively about Boatright’s plan to move the EDC to the forefront of business development.
Following a one-hour workshop on the EDC budget, the Board voted unanimously to recommend the City Council adopt a revised budget for the remaining three months of the fiscal year. Line items included funds for an EDC office, the development of a Comprehensive Plan, funds for a brochure and website, a reception for local businesses and others considering Liberty Hill as a possible business home, and a printed guide to local businesses. The plan also includes $30,000 for business development.
Boatright said the proposed project allocations do not change the amount of total expenditures budgeted by the Council for fiscal 2012.
“In fact, (with three months left in the fiscal year) we may not spend any of it,” said Boatright. “But we’re looking to send a message to the City Council that the EDC is looking for ways to be active by putting money into this that really pertains to economic development.”
“We’ve been talking for a long time about trying to help new and existing businesses, but how we do it is up to this Board,” Spinosa said. By helping businesses expand or bringing in new business, the city’s sales tax revenues grow, in addition to its property tax base.
Boatright said he believes the EDC will be more successful if it plays a more active and visible role in the community.
“We need a presence in the community, and a website is really important,” he said.
In recent days, Boatright said he has spoken with individuals looking to Liberty Hill as a possible site for a winery, a glass business and an auto parts manufacturing business.
He suggested the EDC move into office space outside of City Hall that would be conducive to meetings with potential new business owners, real estate and commercial developers. He said the office, which he thought should be downtown, would also facilitate improved relationships with exisiting business owners.
The Board authorized Boatright to research some available properties, and present ideas at a future meeting. The Board also asked him to suggest how the office should be manned.
By accessing funds for business development, the EDC can help existing businesses expand. Spinosa briefly shared the need of one business planning to build a new and much larger office on State Highway 29. In its new location, a fire hydrant will be required. With the anticipated addition of other businesses nearby, Spinosa said the EDC might consider helping defray some of costs of that fire hydrant as its contribution to help reduce the businesses’ start-up costs.
“I agree with you that the EDC money has been used as a slush fund, but the EDC hasn’t been able to do anything,” said Brian Butler. “Now we can see a plan” and the opportunities for the council to redirect the money for other purposes will be fewer.
“I’d like to see the budget reflect what we really,” said John Johnston. “If the City needs help, okay, but let’s wean them away.”
In the proposed budget for the remainder of the year, the Board did set aside money to pay for the development of a Comprehensive Plan for the City.
The Board also agreed to host a Meet & Greet for business owners, developers and others interested in starting a business in Liberty Hill.
Board members authorized Boatright to create a plan and set a date for the event, and obtain prices for catering and possible locations.
As a way to expand its reach into the community, the EDC Board agreed to create ex-officio or non-voting positions on the board. Spinosa said possible candidates would be leaders in the community, and he stressed the importance of having a representative of the school district involved. Names were discussed and members agreed to extend invitations to a few individuals.
Boatright answered questions from Board members about water availability for those looking to start businesses in Liberty Hill. He explained the agreement with the City of Leander that was approved by the Liberty Hill City Council last week to access the City’s water on reserve in Lake Travis. Boatright, who negotiated the final deal with Leander that will bring up to 1.3 million gallons of water a day to Liberty Hill, said while construction is under way, he will also continue communications with Chisholm Trail SUD and the City of Georgetown as they negotiate between themselves a Georgetown takeover of the CTSUD assets and CCN’s. He said it is possible that Liberty Hill could benefit some way from the new arrangement between the water providers.
Also last week, the Board accepted the resignation of Shane White. Spinosa said White, a local real estate broker, said he did not have the time to commit to service. The City Council must accept White’s resignation before the EDC and Council can consider a replacement.
In attendance Thursday was Jack Harkrider, a former council member who was appointed to the EDC Board last year, but was not present for a number of meetings. Harkrider said in the past, he was not notified of scheduled meetings. His name no longer appears on EDC meeting agendas and it was not immediately known last week whether he was still an official member. Because only unanimous votes were cast during the meeting, however, his vote did not change any outcome.