As the Economic Opportunity Advisory Council director, Helga Van Eckert’s motto is simple: "Once we get your toes in the sand, we’ve got you." At least that’s what Van Eckert is hoping for, as she’s tasked with luring new businesses to Flagler. It’s been nonstop since she started the job earlier this year. The department was created after nine Flagler volunteers, each with a different expertise, outlined a mission statement and vision for growth as a member of the council.
Van Eckert comes to Flagler by way of New Jersey, where she worked in economic development. Graduating from Rutgers, Van Eckert made her way through school by selling real estate before earning a degree in bio-environmental engineering. Upon graduating, Van Eckert investigated and remediated industrial sites, helped businesses and municipalities prepare land for future use, negotiated agreements between parties for site development and assisted new businesses in relocating. Now in Flagler County, Van Eckert has plenty of space to help economic development take root.
Job No. 1 for Van Eckert was to surround herself with people from within the community and understand what types of growth they’d like to see. The Economic Opportunity Advisory Council session laid out assets and obstacles for the county and identified seven areas that could see the most growth, including agriculture, aviation, green technology, health care and science, high tech, manufacturing/logistics and marine research. For businesses that may find Flagler attractive, data was collected to any information the prospective business may need.
"Personal contact … communication is always the key," she said. "We need to inform potential new businesses about what Flagler County has to offer and educate the existing businesses about the tools we have to help them grow, letting them know that Flagler County is here."
Van Eckert’s communication skills have been noted with many businesses and co-workers. Carl Laundrie, communications manager for the county, said enthusiasm and Van Eckert’s hands-on approach have been refreshing.
"She has made it a point to get out and talk to everyone in the county," Laundrie said.
Along with communication, Van Eckert is striving for clarity. One of her first tasks since accepting the job was to easily color code the different zones within Flagler County. Previously, there were individual codes and names for agricultural, residential and business zones within each city. Now, she has one simple map for the entire county. Potential businesses look at the map and decide what part of the county they are interested in. Once a business pinpoints Flagler, she can then take them around to decide what area is best, downplaying potential competition between cities.
Finding the right fit is something that is important to Van Eckert. She’s also working with residents, established businesses, and the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce & Affiliates to make sure any newcomer is a positive addition. So far, Van Eckert’s department is seeing results. Last year, she said, Industry Week Magazine held its annual round table in Flagler. The meeting brings together site selectors from throughout the nation to network with businesses and developers. Because of its success, Flagler County will host the conference again next year. Van Eckert’s job isn’t easy and it’s often scrutinized by the public, but she gets motivation from residents. People, she said, are a great resource for growth.
"There’s so much passion in this community," she said. "If we can harness that power, we can ensure economic growth."