The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors created the Economic Opportunity Fund in December 2006. According to the minutes (and my notes) of the meeting, the discussion surrounding the creation of the fund focused on the creation of high paying jobs in Albemarle for Albemarle residents. The vote was 4-2 in favor (Mr. Rooker and Ms. Thomas voting in opposition).
With a balance of $250,000, this fund really started to attract attention a few months back. Several proposals recently came forward requesting county investment.
In this initial discussion, I envisioned this fund being used as one time money to sweeten the pot for some local business to stay in Albemarle or to attract a high paying employer to Albemarle County. My mind’s eye saw this fund as a handshake to confirm the deal but many of the proposals that have come forward is looking much more like a hand out without the promised return on investment.
Absent a cohesive, objective metric to measure these “opportunities” staff had no established methodology to appropriately evaluate the proposals. To this end, Albemarle County staff has developed a five pillar valuation metric that they are presenting to the Board of Supervisors this week. The five pillars (each worth 20 points) are: High Wage Jobs, Local Workforce Development, Matching Funds, Tangible Benefits to the Community, County Goals and Objectives.
Staff is recommending proposals must receive a total score of 75 points or greater to merit consideration. Further, staff is proposing a performance agreement requiring commitments regarding local job creation, wage levels for jobs created, capital investment and matching funds. The performance will be guaranteed with some form of surety bond.
While the Free Enterprise Forum has serious concerns regarding significant government investment in private enterprise, we applaud the design of these guidelines especially regarding the return on investment discussion. We are discouraged by the genre of the majority of the “submissions and initial inquries” that have already come forward. From the staff report:
Economic Opportunity Fund Project Submissions include:
- Food Hub – this proposal requests funding to set up and operate a local-food warehouse operation for the purpose of making local crops more accessible to institutional buyers and distributors.
- Virginia Bounty (formerly Locus Foods) – this proposal requests funding to purchase IT software and set up a virtual market place for local food distribution to individuals and households, institutional buyers and distributors. This business model and software package is currently deployed at a number of food system businesses.
- Work Force Training – Piedmont Workforce Network submitted a proposal for creating a local worker training program, for local companies to cost-share workforce training projects, in effect filling gaps not addressed by the State Department of Business Assistance Jobs Investment Program.
To be clear, the Free Enterprise Forum is not suggesting these projects are not worthy projects — merely that this economic opportunity fund was set up to battle underemployment — not further other county objectives. These objectives are not mutually exclusive and the staff’s proposal to provide properly weighted valuation metric goes a long way to ensuring these one time funds are spent only when a proposal meets the rationale for the fund’s creation. If no proposal rises to such a level — No funds should be issued.
Retaining these funds also has a value of providing the Board of Supervisors flexibility if and when a proper economic opportunity surfaces. It is important to have the ability to reach out when some business wants to do business. It is equally important to recognize the difference between a business opportunity and a sponsorship opportunity. It is the difference between a handshake and a hand out.