A town hall meeting provided an insight into residents' views on the local economy.
Flagler County is expected to be among the top five fastest-growing counties in Florida through the year 2030, with the population growing from 108,000 today to somewhere between 160,000 and 200,000. The state, meanwhile, should have six million more residents by 2030. What are we going to do about it?
“We must plan better for the next six million Floridians than we did for the last six million,” said Dr. Jerry Parrish, chief economist and director of research of the Florida Chamber Foundation.
Growth was the subject of a town hall meeting held Thursday, May 19, at the Flagler Auditorium, the final stop on a statewide tour by the Florida Chamber Foundation, which has now visited all 67 Florida counties to share data about the local and statewide impact of growth.
Parrish, the moderator, conducted an online poll with the 130 community members in the audience, along with others who were listening to the event live on WNZF radio.
Here are some of the observations and key findings from the town hall meeting:
People are leaving
Among those in the audience, only 9% grew up in the Flagler County community. “This tells me people are leaving,” Parrish said.
Thirteen percent of the audience said they have lived here for less than two years. County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin came to a different conclusion than Parrish did: “The economy’s picking up, and people are moving here,” McLaughlin said.
One audience member said he had moved here from Orlando “to run away from I-4.” Others said they had moved here to retire.
Parrish said the Florida Chamber Foundation is not political, but he did weigh in on a political issue. The state Legislature, including Rep. Paul Renner, working toward cutting funding for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, state agencies that give incentives for businesses to relocate to Florida and increase tourism, respectively.
As a result, Parrish said, “Some people are saying, ‘I’m not looking at Florida anymore.’” He continued: “You don’t have to kill Visit Florida to kill jobs. You don’t have to kill Enterprise Florida to kill jobs. You just have to talk about killing Visit Florida to kill jobs.”
He predicted that 50,000 fewer jobs will be created in the state this year than were created last year.
“We’re sending signals to businesses that, ‘Hey, don’t look at Florida right now,’” Parrish said. “I talk to site selectors. I know what’s going on…. Job creation is slowing down.”
Employers want ‘soft skills’
About 50% of today’s jobs will be disrupted or disappear by 2030, according to what Parrish called “futurists.” That makes getting an education a complicated task.
“What do you do to prepare someone for a job that doesn’t even exist now?” Parrish said. “The key is to give people skills that are transferrable to any job.”
That means “soft skills,” or “employability skills,” such as showing up for work on time, saying “please,” and playing as a team.
Parrish said he asked a college president whether graduates are ready for work, and the college president said 90% were ready. But business people say only 11% are ready for work.
The hospitality industry does the best job of helping people develop soft skills, Parrish said.
What’s your opinion on the state of Flagler County?
Dr. Jerry Parrish conducted a survey at the town hall meeting May 18, at the Flagler Auditorium. Results were displayed by a projector, in real time.
Strength and improving 23%
Strength but weakening 3%
Weakness but improving 62%
Weakness and getting worse 12%
After having results of 66 other counties already, Parrish was in a position to observe how Flagler County stands out in the state. With 74% of audience members saying economic development is a weakness, Parrish said that’s higher than average.
County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin noted, however, that 85% believe the situation is improving. During the recession, “we were in a weak spot, and we grabbed the bull by the horns,” McLaughlin said, referring to the Economic Summit, held in 2011. That summit led to the creation of the Flagler County Department of Economic Opportunity.
“We’re doing everything we can possibly do to improve the situation, in partnership with these community leaders,” he said, referring to the audience members, some of whom also attended the Economic Summit.
Business Climate: Regulations
Strength and improving 11%
Strength but weakening 8%
Weakness but improving 52%
Weakness and getting worse 30%
Parrish said that 30% number is “a lot higher than most places I’ve been. … That’s something that really needs to be looked at. You can’t strangle businesses out of existence.”
McLaughlin said the county is “behind the 8 ball in online permitting” and could be more streamlined by approving simple projects such as driveway repairs.
“A lot of the calls I get are about the amount of time it takes to get through the process, and that we can do something about,” he said.
Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, speaking on “Free For All Friday” on May 19, on WNZF, said she felt the low numbers on business climate were the consequence of people telling “old stories.” She said the city has had good reviews from recent projects, such as the rebuilt Dunkin’ Donuts and Super Car Wash. Still, she said, the city should continue to look at ways to improve.
Quality of life: Economic Prosperity
Strength and improving 44%
Strength but weakening 11%
Weakness but improving 36%
Weakness and getting worse 8%
Parrish said 1) poverty rate of children under 18 and 2) the high school graduation rate, are two of the most important factors in determining the future success of an economy.
Affordability of Housing
Strength and improving 16%
Strength but weakening 38%
Weakness but improving 13%
Weakness and getting worse 32%
This is the No. 1 issue in the state, Parrish said. But it’s troubling when 70% of respondents say the situation is getting worse.
“We have a shortage of apartment opportunities and lower price points for housing,” McLaughlin said. During the recession, “the median house price couldn’t be purchased by the median household income. For young families, the cost of housing is not an encouraging figure.”
Still, he said, “This is market driven. I want to avoid the government-ought-to-do-something response. … Business will correct.”
Health and Wellness
Strength and improving 34%
Strength but weakening 8%
Weakness but improving 41%
Weakness and getting worse 17%
Respondents said they were encouraged by the availability of health services and assisted living developments that are under construction.
Governance: Responsive Government
Strength and improving 27%
Strength but weakening 3%
Weakness but improving 35%
Weakness and getting worse 35%
“Certainty is more important than the tax level when businesses make decisions,” Parrish said. “You don’t need to be the cheapest, you just need to be predictable.”
The survey results in this area, Parrish said, “are far less positive than a lot of areas in the state.”
McLaughlin said the poor numbers in this category were “hard to swallow.” He feels he is accessible to residents; for example, he has attended 186 ribbon cuttings since being elected in 2010. He suggested that some respondents might have been thinking of federal government problems, rather than local government.
Strength and improving 66%
Strength but weakening 11%
Weakness but improving 11%
Weakness and getting worse 13%
Parrish called 66% a “shocking” and “monster number.” He asked who gets the credit, and a few residents pointed to the new sheriff, Rick Staly.
McLaughlin said he has heard residents ask if more deputies have been hired, but that hasn’t happened. Staly just “reconfigured what’s going on and is empowering deputies,” he said.
Arts, Culture, Heritage, Sense of Place
Strength and improving 24%
Strength but weakening 0%
Weakness but improving 66%
Weakness and getting worse 10%
Ninety percent of respondents said things are improving in this category. Among the possible reasons for optimism is the $50,000 grant that was given to the Palm Coast Arts Foundation.
“The sign of a mature community is what you do with the arts,” McLaughlin added.