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Ocala and Marion County's chamber, EDC have joined forces

Brian O'connor and Doug Cone
Brian O'Connor (left) and Doug Cone took on the task of creating a more efficient economic development structure, part of a national trend of merging EDCs and chambers of commerce. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

In 1954, business leaders in Ocala established the Committee of 100 to get more aggressive about economic development. The chamber of commerce, around since 1887, was to focus inside the community, offering networking and other assistance for existing businesses. The committee, which came to be called the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corp., would become the primary agency for economic initiatives and outside recruitment.

Those roles evolved for six decades, as the chamber and EDC built their own missions, offices, staffs and half-million-dollar budgets. But when the economic downturn whacked Marion County harder than the rest of the state, the collective efforts of the EDC and the chamber weren't enough to help stem double-digit unemployment and other economic maladies. In May, business leaders on the boards of the two organizations formed a task force to try to figure out "new approaches to difficult challenges." They decided the chamber and EDC should merge; this fall, the boards voted to do so. Details are still being hammered out. But the organizations expect to complete the merger next month, with a newly named entity under one roof at the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce building downtown.

Leaders hope a unified approach can expedite economic growth and job creation by pulling all available resources into a single pipeline, says task force co-Chairman Doug Cone. Other goals are to reduce duplication of services and expand private investment so economic development is not so dependent on public-sector funding. The merged organization's budget is an estimated $1.54 million — about $350,000 less than the combined budgets of the chamber and EDC.

Marion County is part of a national trend, says Ian Scott, vice president for communications and networks at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives organization in Alexandria, Va. "Civic leaders believe that coordination is better than fragmentation," says Scott. "And major corporate funders are tired of writing multiple checks."

Elsewhere in Florida:

» Advisers to Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown are working on a reorganization plan that could eliminate the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and its countywide role in negotiating financial incentives.

» Board members this fall abolished the Economic Development Council of Collier County in favor of a county-managed plan to attract and retain businesses. The region hopes to formalize a multicounty economic-development partnership for southwest Florida.

» The Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Development Council are tussling over how $4 million a year in bed tax money is allocated.

Scott says such efforts at regionalism, best embodied by central Florida's myregion.org, are likely to catch on post-recession. "It's an effort to find better alignment of various stakeholders — corporate and civic and economic-development — with limited funding."