Study shows need for economic development

OKEECHOBEE — Leaders in Okeechobee County with a concern for the future of the community have taken action in response to an economic analysis conducted earlier this year.

In May 2018, the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners conducted a workshop to evaluate the county’s approach to growth and development. After careful discussion and deliberation, the commission unanimously voted to seek professional counsel from Bill Fruth with the POLICOM Corp., a firm in Martin County that specializes in the analysis of local economies to determine whether they are growing or declining.

Okeechobee, Florida, welcome sign

After several months of conducting research, Mr. Fruth presented his findings in the “Economic Development Plan for Okeechobee County,” a report he presented to a crowd of business leaders and elected officials at a luncheon hosted by the Economic Council of Okeechobee. Stagnant population growth, low-wage jobs, poor community aesthetics, lack of new-home construction and declining public-school enrollment were among the findings.

“The Okeechobee County economy has been on decline for the last several years,” the report begins.

“As a result of the relative decline in the Okeechobee County economy, there are few quality employment opportunities for the best and brightest young people, causing them to move from the area for career opportunities.

“Overall employment opportunities are settled in low-wage positions, preventing individuals from significantly improving their standard of living unless they leave the county.”

When compared with counties of comparable size and scale, Mr. Fruth also determined that Okeechobee County ranks eighth-highest in the nation for a population reliant on food stamps.

The burden of Okeechobee’s declining economy doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of the Okeechobee County residents. The report continues by highlighting the pressure placed on local government and the public school system as a result of the decline.

In the last 10 years, “the taxable base for local government has not significantly increased, placing a strain on local government and educational services,” the report states.

“This year the school system reached a significant milestone. The student population is now so poor, 100 percent of the students now qualify for a free breakfast and lunch.”

Data released by the Florida Chamber Foundation coincides with many of these findings, reporting 34.6 percent of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty in Okeechobee County.

Agriculture is specifically noted as one of Okeechobee County’s primary industries, but the majority of wages generated are relatively low.

“The Okeechobee County economy is dominated by industries which cause the formation of low-wage jobs. Additionally, these industries have not grown in recent years. As a result, it is a low-wage economy providing few opportunities for area residents to improve their standard of living,” the study states.

“If nothing is done to reverse the downward economic slide, within 10 years the county will become one of the poorest in Florida.”

In his report, Mr. Fruth encourages area leaders to not remain idle and to address these issues with urgency. His first recommendation is for the community to create and generously fund a professionally managed economic development organization.

“Communities which do nothing are destined to endure a declining economy, causing the quality of life for their residents to erode, as they will gradually become poorer and poorer,” the study continues.

“By creating an aggressive economic development program, [Okeechobee County] can prevent the area from declining more and cause it to grow, improving the standard of living for all.”

The Okeechobee County Economic Development Corp. (OCEDC) was formed in direct response to this call to action. The board of directors includes appointments from the Economic Council (Ashley Tripp, Fred Fanizzi and Frank Irby), Okeechobee County Commission (Terry Burroughs), City of Okeechobee (Marcos Montes De Oca), School District (Ken Kenworthy), Chamber of Commerce (Tabitha Trent) and Indian River State College (Dr. Ed Massey, Dr. Pam Welmon and Russ Brown).

Private industry leaders are also supporting the cause and have joined the board of directors for an annual financial pledge to the organization. These directors include Wes Williamson (Williamson Cattle Co.), Keith Walpole (Walpole Inc.), Christa Luna (Gilbert Family of Companies), John Williams (CenterState Bank), and Jon Geitner (Seacoast Bank).

The development corporation continues to gain support from the local community and surrounding areas, with additional financial contributions and in-kind donations received from Florida Power & Light, Seacoast Bank and IRSC. The corporation is also continuing to receive new applications to the board of directors from the private sector.

According to the report from Mr. Fruth, one of the first priorities the board will be tasked with will be to employ an economic development professional to lead and manage the operations of the organization as early as spring 2019.

While the findings of the in-depth analysis from the POLICOM Corp. are dim, Mr. Fruth stresses that the time to act is now if community leaders are serious about creating a vibrant economy and a prosperous future for Okeechobee County residents and businesses.

“Presently, (Okeechobee) is several years behind most other communities in Florida regarding efforts to build and improve their area economy. However, the community can reverse this downward trend and create an economically dynamic community, improving the standard of living for all by implementing an aggressive economic development program.”

For more information on the Okeechobee County Economic Development Corp. or to learn how you can become a contributor to the organization, contact Jennifer Tewksbury at 863-467-0200.

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