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7:12 AM Sun, Nov. 18th

Heads of economic development group fed up

City refuses to support their efforts, they say

KINGMAN - The Economic Development and Marketing Commission is set for a major shakeup today, with several of its members, including the chair and vice-chair, expected to announce their resignations when the commission meets at 8 a.m.

The resignations come due to an ongoing impression by commission members that the City Council has failed to provide adequate funding and support after creating the commission last November.

In an interview Thursday, EDMC chairwoman Christine Cerny set the stage for today's meeting, describing the intense frustration commission members have felt since they first set about trying to bring businesses into Kingman. Money, she said, has posed the largest problem, with Council putting no mechanism in place to reliably fund the commission from year to year.

"I have found that most cities our size have an economic development director in place, as well as a budget of between $250,000 to $900,000," Cerny said. "We approached Council with a conservative $84,000 budget. They told us we would need to seek funding from the Tourism Development Commission. Tourism was generous and supported our efforts and provided $38,500."

That $38,500 came directly from the TDC's share of the city's hotel tax but was only intended as a one-time infusion of seed money, to allow the EDMC to commission a formal study of local businesses and consumer spending habits, which in turn would produce a report the commission could use in subsequent years to draw new businesses to the area.

But during its March meeting, Cerny said TDC commissioners had expressed concern over whether or not that money should be spent without a guarantee that the EDMC would have enough money in future years to follow up on the study.

That final opportunity came and went Monday evening, when Council voted to approve its tentative budget without any changes to its $8,000 allocation to EDMC.

"This city needs jobs, and to spend $8,000 in the investment of those jobs is ridiculous and insulting," Cerny said. "Those numbers I quoted earlier regarding those other cities ... those are appropriated to .5 percent of those cities' annual budgets, and those cities are whom we are competing with to bring in those jobs. $8,000 of our city's annual budget isn't even a fraction of 1 percent, which tells me that economic development is not a priority of the majority of Council."

According to EDMC Vice-chair John Kirby, several commission members believed that Council would be able to fund the commission with the recently-raised hotel tax. Instead, Council voted to limit the new tax collections to the city's $250 million capital improvements plan.

"We're not recreating the wheel here in town. Every city that has a commission has to fund it, and you have to identify funding mechanisms," Kirby said. "They created us, so they're saying, 'You're a commission now, but you don't have any money.'"

As an official city-sanctioned commission, members were also frustrated by some of their reporting requirements. According to Kirby, EDMC originally started with 11 members with the intention of forming separate subcommittees to tackle individual issues such as the Shop Kingman campaign. But that goal proved difficult, with members required to take minutes and provide agendas to the City Clerk's office for every meeting of every subcommittee.

"As soon as we started splintering, we were told by the city attorney that we were subject to open meeting laws, and thereby, we needed to use the city resources to do minutes and post agendas and all that stuff," he said. "We were told in no uncertain terms that the city did not have the resources to support our subcommittees and all the reporting requirements."

Between the red tape and the lack of funding, Cerny said she felt economic development might be tackled more efficiently through a non-governmental body of concerned citizens. And while she said she could understand some of the fiscal concerns Council had over funding the fledgling commission in tight economic times, its perceived lack of any real desire to see the commission succeed is what she says has forced her to look elsewhere.

"I do respect that immensely, but I also feel that if we're not being supported in this way, we can be much more productive and effective in a different venue," she said. "If the city cannot support us, there are other people in the community who can and will."

Mayor John Salem said he was aware of the EDMC's funding concerns but was surprised by the news that several commissioners were considering resigning. Contrary to their perceptions, he said he has been a big supporter of the EDMC and the events it has held so far, such as last month's marketing development workshop, which ended up costing the city nothing.

"To be perfectly honest with you, this is the first I've heard of this," he said. "I'm in support of EDMC, I'm in support of their causes, I'm in support of giving them what I can; but I'm one vote, and when it comes to budgetary issues, we need a majority of Council to come to a decision."

Salem added that there are still members of his constituency who are skeptical of spending any large amounts of money on economic development following the city's elimination of its Economic Development Department in July 2007. That decision was precipitated in large part by then-Economic Director Jeff Weir's decision to spend thousands in city funds to pursue a railroad freight center that the railroad itself denied it had any interest in locating here.

"There are still some wounds that need to be healed from that," Salem said. "The whole reason this commission was formed in the first place was to pick up where the Economic Development Department left off, but on a much smaller cash-flow scale economically. It started off as a steering committee with no budget, and even then they were doing wonderful things."

Salem reiterated the importance of fiscal conservatism in uncertain times, adding that he believed $50,000 for a commission's first year was a good start, if nothing else, especially considering many of the city's commissions receive no funding at all.

"I would like to see economic development higher on our list of priorities, but in this current economic climate, we just can't move it up right now," he said. "After this first year, once they're established and we see what kind of wonderful things they're doing, I'm sure we can get more funds for them."

In the end, Kirby said, he couldn't help but wonder if Councilman Keith Walker had a point when he said that creating the commission may have been a mistake.

"While I truly believe in it, the sentiment from the city no matter what we do has had a negative connotation," he said. "It sickens me. I haven't slept. And I hate to think of myself as a quitter, but I really think the city made a mistake in making the commission without creating a funding mechanism. And I really don't think they've bought into the idea of economic development."