Economic council to Flagler County: We want van Eckert

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  • | 5:00 a.m. January 12, 2012
  • Palm Coast Observer
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Helga van Eckert was chosen by the Economic Opportunity Advisory Council to lead Flagler’s economic development. The County Commission votes next.

It started with 63.

From the initial batch of applications submitted to the county for its Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director position, 17 were then chosen for phone interviews.

Months later, the candidates were dwindled down to three — Chris Clifton, Helga van Eckert and Bruce Register — all of whom were interviewed all day Thursday, Jan. 5, by the Economic Opportunity Advisory Council. The council convened again Jan. 6, to choose a favorite.

Ultimately, the council chose New Jersey redeveloper Helga van Eckert, whom the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners will vote to approve Jan. 17. Assuming they follow the EOAC’s recommendation, van Eckert will then be offered the job.

“I really wasn’t looking for a new position,” van Eckert told the board, in her initial presentation Jan. 5. “But after having an opportunity to do research … it’s abundantly clear that there’s a strong foundation here. … There’s no doubt in my mind that this position matches very strongly with my capabilities.”

EOAC Chairwoman Barbara Revels agreed, noting the similarities between Perth Amboy, N.J., and Flagler.

As of 2010, the waterfront city of Perth Amboy recorded a population of about 51,000. And according to van Eckert, who started there as an engineer, city officials have been endeavoring to stimulate industrial and commercial growth, as well as create jobs and diversify the tax base.

“Rather than just looking at the land … we really reached out and tried to understand what the needs of the particular businesses are that we were trying to entice,” she said. “That’s really how we sold the city, as we can do here.”

Handing over a packet of her resume and accomplishments, van Eckert outlined to the council her prize achievements, including a $50 million business center, which created 680 jobs and generates $644,269 in taxes per year, and a $72 million corporate center, which created 630 jobs and generates about $3 million in taxes per year.

“It is very hard for us to look past that track record given where we are today,” said Board member Mike Gill, “(van Eckert) having been there, done that, made the plan, executed the plan … and produced results.” He said the community will be better off no matter who is chosen, but his vote was for van Eckert.

The council’s second pick was Chris Clifton, whom several board members said they would happily hire if van Eckert wasn’t available. Its third was Bruce Register.

The interview process began 9 a.m. Jan. 5, in Government Services Building chambers, where each candidate was given free time to endorse themselves at the podium.

Clifton said he helped lower a city in Georgia’s unemployment from 14% to 3.5%.

Van Eckert cited her corporate center, which attracted large companies like U.S. FoodService and Best Buy.

The past of each candidate was strong — each candidate has survived from the intitial round of 63, after all. It was the private interviews which followed that revealed a far more dynamic side of the candidates.

Upstairs, candidates rotated through subcommittees, each of which was tasked with examining a different aspect of the person.

Revels’ group, with Mike Gill and Bob Cahill, for example, focused on marketing, and saw a side of applicant Bruce Register that had not been revealed when he initially spoke in chambers.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I can guarantee you anything,” Register said, in his first sit-down. However, he envisioned tripling Flagler County’s ratio of businesses employing 100 or more workers. “And if you can’t do that in two years, something’s wrong,” he added.

Currently, the county has only two companies employing more than 500, which equates to .1% of its total business community. Nationally, and in Florida, that ratio is closer to 15%.

As Register told his subcommittee, “You need to do trophy-hunting. You need to be prepared to make (financial) sacrifices.”

Following the private interviews, the candidates attended a meet-and-greet hosted by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce & Affiliates. Later, they were taken on a county tour.

The various settings were selected, according to County Administrator Craig Coffey, to observe each candidate in differing environments.

“You see a different side of a person on paper than you do on the phone, than you do one-on-one,” he said.

“Since the person we hire will need to be a salesperson … we were attentive at how comfortable we felt,” added Board member Jim Ulsamer. “You have to project how a prospect is going to feel in front of that presence.”

Currently, staff is issuing questionnaires outlining the candidates’ moving expenses and estimated start dates. The targeted salary range for the position is $100,000 to $110,000.

“I just think that (van Eckert) has done a great job with what she had, and if she can do half of that here …” Revels said, lifting her eyebrows like she’s imagining something big.


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