By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The Economic Development Corporation held its second business forum Wednesday morning, drawing in a group of local business owners to hear about ongoing developments in the city and to offer their own input.
The forums have become a hallmark of new efforts to raise the profile of the EDC, a city board with a mission to attract, retain and grow business in Liberty Hill.
Following the guest speaker format established by the first meeting in June, the discussion was preceded with a presentation from SCORE, a nonprofit that offers free mentoring services for small businesses.
The Austin-based organization pairs veteran business owners with relevant experience to newer business owners. It is aimed primarily at startups, but is also for long established businesses.
SCORE also offers workshops on subjects such as social media marketing and using QuickBooks accounting software. Unlike the one-on-one counseling, however, the workshops cost $40.
“It’s the best kept secret and I hate that,” said Bob Shaver, a mentor with a self-described background in high tech, professional services, consulting and real estate. “It shouldn’t be a secret at all. To me, everyone ought to know about it and take advantage of it.”
Shaver and John Paulsen, another SCORE mentor, sat in the audience with the eight other business owners for the rest of the forum.
EDC Executive Director Lance Dean told the business owners that his role could be seen as a middleman between them and the city.
“I’m not ‘the city,’ I don’t have the authority to change things or put regulations in place,” he said, “but I can definitely help to influence.”
Dean said business owners should reach out to him with any concerns or suggestions. For example, he said, an owner could offer feedback on any new services the city is doing, or what services are lacking.
“Are there certain vendors you need access to that we currently don’t have? Let me know,” Dean said, offering to try to recruit them.
In turn, he continued, he could offer specific answers about what the city is doing for business owners who want to be better informed.
At the first forum in June, input from business owners prompted the EDC to take several actions. They created two new grant programs, for demolitions and new signage that are modeled on the existing downtown facade grant. Additionally, collaboration with Clawson Disposal Services has led to expanded commercial recycling services in the city.
Wednesday, the general discussion sometimes took the shape of a question-and-answer, and at other times, a free-form discussion.
Much of it revolved around the avalanche of development expected to come to Liberty Hill.
The conversations Liberty Hill is having, said Paulsen, remind him of those that happened in a town south of Denver he lived in for 18 years. He said over that period, the community exploded from a “cow town” to a major retailer location.
He said Liberty Hill is experiencing the same kind of transition, which he described as “the difficult time.”
One such issue is the perceived need to raise standards for the appearances of buildings.
Clint Stephenson, who heads a local excavation contracting company and is a trustee of the Liberty Hill Independent School District, said that he imagines it is difficult for the EDC to recruit businesses “if they know someone could put trailer houses up next door.”
Local salon co-owner Brent Harrison also raised the topic of derelict buildings on Highway 29, such as the former LHISD administration building, which is for sale.
The point, which was brought up at the first meeting, was the impetus for the EDC to create the demolition grant program. It offers to reimburse prospective businesses for expenses up to 50 percent, with a maximum of $5,000, related to the demolition of derelict buildings.
The new signage grant follows the same model for matching funds, and seeks to encourage existing businesses to upgrade or replace their highway signs.
Another business owner was concerned that, while higher standards are needed, adding them to the Unified Development Code might prove counterproductive if existing businesses could be grand-fathered in with the old, lower standards.
Paulsen said the point illustrated the benefit of programs that encourage change, such as the grants, rather than those imposing restrictions.
Dean said that another forum could be expected around the beginning of 2018.