In a debate that grew intense this week, members of the Leesburg Town Council ultimately set the wheels in motion for a steering committee to take a comprehensive look at economic development efforts in the town.
The steering committee was the brainchild of Councilman Ron Campbell, who raised the idea as the council finished its budget work April 4. During discussions on whether to put earmark $110,000 to create a downtown Main Street program, Campbell had suggested a thorough look at all the economic developments efforts in town—past and present—and pinpoint the best path forward for Leesburg. While discussion of a downtown Main Street program could be a part of this discussion, the aim is to look at the entire town, he said.
At that meeting, Campbell won support to put aside $125,000 in fiscal year 2018, $25,000 of which would be used to hire a facilitator to guide the steering committee, and the remaining $100,000 held in abeyance should the committee and council determine that a Main Street program is indeed a good move for the town.
This week, council members determined the make-up of the committee, which will include two council members, and determined the ultimate direction of the panel. Those votes did not come easy. Campbell raised the ire of several members when he criticized efforts of past councils to take a comprehensive look at economic development efforts town-wide.
Previous councils have held off on taking any action on studies put together by outside groups or consultants.
Campbell later qualified his remarks to note that he was not saying those who had served on those councils were bad people, just that there was “a failure of council to comprehensively act on information that’s already been given.”
“It’s just a reality,” he said. “And that reality means if you’re talking about a comprehensive plan, you want better action steps that are going to be more actionable and more long-term sustainable.”
Some on the council still took exception to Campbell’s statements. In one of several motions made during Tuesday night’s meeting, Councilman Tom Dunn suggested that, instead of capping membership on a steering committee, the discussion on an economic development comprehensive plan instead be more of an “open meeting process,” similar to the one during review of the downtown improvements capital projects in 2011.
“There’s already a process in place [for reviewing the Town Plan] and it starts with the Planning Commission,” Dunn said. “Not with a council member who’s come in recently and wants to show what he can do by starting a committee.”
That motion failed, along with other motions by Dunn to exclude Town Council members from the committee; to have a consultant review past economic development accomplishments and make recommendations to the committee; to delete the paragraph of the resolution that indicated there could be up to $100,000 for future economic development initiatives; and to have the Planning Commission guide the discussion, as it normally would during Town Plan review.
Councilman Ken Reid also made a series of motions that did not find support, including extending the deadline for the committee to issue its recommendations to the Town Council to January with stakeholder input in the fall, rather than summer; a motion requiring a cost-benefit analysis be presented to the council if any new spending item is discussed; and a motion for the two business representatives on the steering committee to be either one of the top commercial property owners in town or one of its top private employers.
On the latter motion, Reid said his desire was to have “new blood” involved with the steering committee, rather than business representatives who have been involved in past efforts.
One change that came leading up to Tuesday night’s meeting, agreed to by Campbell, was that the two council members serving on the committee would do so in an ex officio, or non-voting, role. Several council members had voiced concerns that having council members be voting members of the committee could give them an opportunity to guide the debate.
Mayor Kelly Burk was one of those who was concerned about council members having a vote on the committee. But the change resolved her concerns, she said.
“Having the experience of council members there I think that’s a good thing,” she said.
Ultimately, the council voted 5-2, with Reid and Dunn dissenting, to form the committee and lay out its scope of work, which will include a look at past studies and accomplishments first. Led by a facilitator, the committee will hold open meetings that will also include sessions primarily for public input. A final report will be presented to the council before the end of the year.
Councilman Hugh Forsythe nominated Campbell and Councilman Marty Martinez to serve on the steering committee. That was agreed to in a 6-1 vote, with Dunn again dissenting. Also serving on the committee will be two representatives from the Planning Commission, one from the Economic Development Commission, two members of the business community, which could include property owners, and two town residents. The latter four representatives would be chosen by committee members.
In his council member comments Tuesday night, Reid said he was sad to have had to vote against the steering committee.
“I liked the concept of doing a Town Plan review” of the economic development section, he said. “The current thing is very skimpy with very few decent objectives.
I’m hoping for the best; I just didn’t like the process. We were not able to thoroughly discuss the work plan in work session.”