ORANGE PARK – A new five-year strategic plan charting Clay County’s economic development future recommends county officials maximize the First Coast Expressway construction, create an entrepreneurial ecosystem for area millennials and to brand Clay County with recognizable signage on its borders.
These recommendations come after months of input consultants received from interested parties in a study conducted by the Winter Park, Fla.-based Balmoral Group. The Clay County Economic Development Corp. – the lead organization for the study – unveiled its results March 24 at a luncheon at the Thrasher-Horne Center.
“The main goal of the plan is to increase the average wage in Clay County,” said Bill Garrison, EDC president. “The most important thing to come from this whole process for me is a community-wide commitment. When I say community-wide, I say that we’re working to get even more people involved. We had five different organizations pay for the plan. To me it’s a victory already, and we’ve barely even started it. The challenge now is to have the discipline and commitment to follow through on the plan.”
The plan includes a five-year strategy to drive more business into Clay County and was written using input from a survey conducted by the Balmoral Group, which polled the opinions of Clay County business owners.
Garrison’s concerns for the plan are well founded as the county’s last strategic plan dates back to 2005 right before the recession rocked Clay County’s economy and never had the chance to fulfil the many strategies developed then.
“There’s a cliché about studies and plans sitting on the shelf collecting dust,” Garrison said. “And it’s a cliché for a reason – it happens too often. So it’s on us and the communities to move this forward. I’m personally making a commitment that I’m not going to let it happen. I can tell you that.”
This plan will get feet with the help of the many public entities that have their hands in this plan, and with the help of the citizens whom the plan affects. The key to the success of the plan is the same teamwork that funded the plan, Garrison said.
“There has to be community buy in,” said Diane Hutchings chairman of the Clay County Board of Commissioners. “That includes municipalities, school boards, volunteer boards and the chamber. It has got to be a unified effort. We need to decide what we want to look like in the future so we can work towards that goal.”
Hutchings believes the most important way for the community to support the plan is to reinstate the one percent sales tax that will be on the ballot this year. It’s a way for the whole community, and not just property owners, to participate in the funding of their local government, Hutchings said.
“We have a window to really accomplish quite a number of feats in the next few months, and the next years,” said Josh Cockrell, executive director of the Clay County Development Authority. “Absolutely five years from now, I can see a lot being accomplished. We have great collaborations going on in this county and we have the right people in leadership. So now it’s just a matter of rolling it out and moving forward.”
The EDC will look at creating a co-work space in the coming months, which is essentially a space for startup business owners to come and work. The space provides such basic essentials as a coffee pot, a printer, desks and chairs to anyone who might need them for their business, along with affordable rental rates.
As the plan matures in the community, the EDC will also look for alternative means of funding, which include grants given by the state for community’s which have military facilities, such as Camp Blanding, as a means of extending the county’s economic base beyond its dependency on the base.
The EDC will meet with local entities on April 13 to divvy up the roles and responsibilities for the various facets of the plan. Residents are encouraged to attend to help shape their local government, and help mold this new direction for Clay County.
“We want our county to be a thriving place where families can do well,” Hutchings said. “We don’t want to live in the past, we want to live in the present, but at the same time we want to embrace those traditional values that make us such a family-friendly community, because families are the bed rock of our community. If our families are healthy, then our communities are going to be healthy. If it’s new, then let’s don’t be afraid of it. Let’s see where it’ll fit in with what we’re trying to accomplish.”