Days after Flagler County hosted its second-annual economic development strategic planning session, Helga van Eckert announced some good news on the development front: Gioia Sails Southern Division is moving in.
The company, which is headquartered in Lakewood, N.J., will relocate 30 employees to the county and plans to hire eight to 10 new employees within a year.
This marks the fourth new business brought to the county by the Economic Opportunity Department, of which van Eckert is the director.
The planning session, which was held Monday, is meant to catalyze these kinds of business relocations, identify the county’s development goals and assess its progress toward them, and, spark new strategies for development.
Much of the planning session was spent in small groups made of people of diverse backgrounds and expertise. Together, the groups talk about ways to improve Flagler in various areas, including education, infrastructure, agriculture and tourism. Often, this mix generates ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have arisen.
“When you have people who work on certain things every day, they sometimes get locked into a certain mindset,” van Eckert said. "But when you mix in new people, they start asking questions. They look at things differently. It’s a different kind of energy that gets created."
Gioia Sails manufactures canvas sailing products and works closely with another Flagler County employer, Sea Ray Boats. The plan for the Flagler County facility includes expanding its operation to produce awnings and provide re-upholstering services. The company purchased a facility at 5 Hargrove Grade in Palm Coast and is currently renovating it. Van Eckert said it hopes to open its doors within four weeks.
Monday’s planning session was facilitated by Marilyn Crotty, director of the John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government at the University of Central Florida.
Crotty took notes throughout the eight-hour event and is now at work compiling her notes into a report, which will include an action plan.
Crotty said one of the striking things about Flagler County in particular is that people were realistic about the limits of government funds and the importance of development for the entire community. Many citizens understand that a greater corporate presence balances tax funds and lifts some weight from property owners, she said.
Despite her positive impression of the county, Crotty also outlined several area that could be improved.
The first, she said, was communication. Many people gave suggestions during group discussion only to find out that their suggestions already existed in the area, but nobody knows about them.
Paul Manning, who sits on Flagler County’s Economic Opportunity Advisory Council, gave a concrete example of this phenomenon. He said that through his participation in the session he learned that the Flagler County airport has foreign trade designations, something he'd never known. He suggested that this service be marketed more aggressively because it could be lucrative for business owners.
Crotty said another challenge is that Flagler County does not have a large corporate community, which can make attracting businesses hard. She also said many people believe the skills of retired or former business professionals in the county are underutilized.
After the planning session, Flagler County Commissioner Barbara Revels, who is also on the Economic Opportunity Advisory Council, thanked van Eckert for her work and asked her to reach out to the council if her department needs additional support.
“You’ve got a body of volunteers who are willing to help you,” Revels said. “Rather than commenting on (economic development), we need to say, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”