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Okeechobee: Dusting Off the Playbook

Brian Cartland, who leads the Business Development Board of Okeechobee County, is charged with diversifying the county’s employment base. [Photo: Matt Dean]
In 2006, an economist hired by Okeechobee County to create an economic development plan told county commissioners their home had reached a crossroads: Seize the future or become another fast-growing place generating low-wage jobs, struggling to pay for essential services as residents’ standard of living declined.

Three years later, county leaders have dusted off the plan and launched the Business Development Board of Okeechobee County after raising $120,000 in a tough economy. “That speaks to the broad support for this initiative in the county,” says board Chairman Mark Smith, Seacoast National Bank president for the region.

Brian Cartland, a longtime economic developer from the Gulf Coast, arrived in September as executive director. His task: Help existing businesses and recruit new ones to diversify the county’s agriculture- and tourism-based economy. He argues that the county’s proximity to each coast and population centers makes it a natural for distribution operations, manufacturing and even technology. Indeed, California-based LS9 in February announced it purchased an Okeechobee plant to prove the commercial viability of its biodiesel. LS9 will create up to 20 operations jobs and, during a retrofit, 50 construction jobs.

In February, Okeechobee’s unemployment rate was 13.7%. “Make no mistake, there are challenges here, and many businesses have laid people off,” Cartland says. Large employers struggle. Olde Tyme Construction, for instance, employed 55 to 65 four years ago, creating architectural accents for buildings at country clubs, performing arts centers and other developments. It’s down to 13 employees, says CFO Bob Bates. “Unless it’s a government building or a government project, most construction is real slow,” Bates says.

So the new effort comes none too soon. “We want a vibrant economy,” Smith says. “We have a lot of goodassets here, but it doesn’t happen on its own.”