The Cole County Commission will meet today with members of the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce executive committee in a closed session to determine whether to continue contracting with the agency for economic development services.
Last week, commission members questioned the economic development success of the chamber and whether it provides any economic development services outside of Jefferson City limits.
Chamber President and CEO Randy Allen said a lack of existing infrastructure and zoning makes it difficult to attract businesses to unincorporated areas of the county.
"There is a reason that new businesses or existing businesses expand in a city like Jefferson City, because all those things are there," Allen said. "They want to protect their investment."
Presiding Commissioner Marc Ellinger said chamber representatives made clear they see police, fire and ambulance service as better within city limits, something he does not agree with.
"I think they made it pretty clear they don't do anything (outside of city limits)," Ellinger said. "It's disconcerting to hear the chamber basically say "it's either inside Jeff City or it's the highway,' when half the residents of Cole County, give or take, live outside the city limits and they pay taxes too."
Allen pointed to the Cole County Communities Committee as an example of the chamber's work outside of Jefferson City. He said the committee meets once a month and representatives from all incorporated areas within Cole County are invited to attend and county issues are discussed.
"It's been reasonably successful, but it could obviously always get better," Allen said.
Allen said the chamber also operates a land database that allows any real estate agent to post commercial or industrial sites for sale within Cole County and a few county sites are listed. He also noted chamber members come from throughout the county, including businesses in St. Martins, Russellville and unincorporated areas of the county.
"I think there's just some disagreement with the county right now about the work that we're doing on their behalf," Allen said.
As for the infrastructure issue, Ellinger said there are parts of the county, specifically incorporated communities, that have existing infrastructure and also noted parts of Jefferson City that are marketed for development that do not have infrastructure.
"There's no question that infrastructure's an issue, but there's a lot of parts of Cole County outside of Jefferson City that have infrastructure," Ellinger said.
The chamber received $185,000 from Jefferson City and $150,000 from Cole County for economic development services in the current budget year and each contract must be renewed annually. The county's contract with the chamber expired at the end of last year and, currently, there is no contract in place.
Though he was unsure of the specific year, Allen said the chamber has been formally contracted by the city and county for economic development service for about 20 years. He noted services were provided earlier than that, though not through a formal contract.
Jefferson City officials also may be looking at other options for economic development services, though not because of any issues with what the chamber is providing.
At a committee meeting last week, 3rd Ward Councilman Ken Hussey presented a proposed resolution stating the city will open a request for proposals process for economic development services for when the contract with the chamber expires Oct. 31. The committee voted to move the resolution forward to the full City Council for review.
Hussey said he offered the resolution because he believes a contract the size of the one with the chamber should be competitively bid to ensure the most open process is followed.
"It's an opportunity just for the council and the new city administrator to discuss economic development," Hussey said. "Are the goals of the city still matched well with the contract that we have and explore that."
Hussey said opening the process allows for evaluations to be made on the services needed and whether the city contribution to the chamber is the right amount. He noted the city has a "challenging budget" and the council needs to look at every expense against other critical services within the city.
Hussey specified his resolution is not an indictment of the chamber, but simply an effort to open the process and ensure the city is spending its money wisely.
Allen said city officials have talked about opening the process up for bids in the past, but noted it's a very difficult service to bid out.
"It's not something that is bid very often in this case because, technically, it's not really a defined service," Allen said.
Allen said the chamber is not opposed to the city opening the process up for bids, but would hope officials look at all qualifications of any bidders and not simply what costs less.
If either the city or county, or both, opts to find a new economic development service, the question becomes what options are there? Hussey and Allen both said they are unaware of any other groups, services or agencies that provide economic development services in this area and are unsure if other options outside of the chamber actually exist.
"Obviously, chambers are the ones that normally do that because it ties so closely to the work that they do," Allen said.
But Ellinger said there are other options, including starting an in-house economic development department or partnering with the city for an economic development department, which would be much like what is used in Columbia and Boone County.
"There's lots of options out there," Ellinger said. "The chamber's just one of them."
In Columbia, economic development services are provided through Regional Economic Development Inc., or REDI, which is a nonprofit organization also used by Boone County. REDI board members include city and county officials, as well as business representatives from the area.
Both Ellinger and Allen said the meeting today with the chamber executive committee will determine the next steps and whether the county will renew the contract with chamber or seek out other options.
Ellinger said the commission would need to see better terms concerning the services provided and the communication with the commission in the contract to renew.
"I got the distinct impression that there was less than full desire from the chamber to do some of the things we're asking, and I think that's problematic if that continues," Ellinger said. "The meeting (today) is going to be quite important."