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February 13, 2014

DEO pilot program underway in White Springs-Community partners join in

Jasper — On Saturday, Feb. 1, a host of city, county and state representatives turned out for the first public meeting of the Competitive Florida Partnership pilot program in White Springs. The town was selected as one of only four communities in the state to participate in the first year of the Competitive Florida Partnership Program in conjunction with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).  The other three rural communities participating in the pilot program are the city of Port St. Joe, the city of Newberry, and Desoto County.

The Feb. 1 meeting inside Nelly Bly’s Kitchen at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park was filled with introductions, presentations and idea-sharing, as well as a tour of the town’s historic district and other sites within White Springs that are ripe for potential growth and development.

“This is all about partnering for economic and community development,” White Springs Mayor Helen Miller explained.

Miller served as moderator and began by asking all in attendance to identify who they were, where they were from, and their connection to White Springs.

The state of Florida was represented by Julie A. Dennis, Community Program Manager, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) Division of Community Development, along with Matt Preston, Sherri Martin and Valerie Jenkins, all from the DEO.

From White Springs were Councilwoman Tonja Brown, Councilman Rhett Bullard, Administrative Assistant Anita Rivers, Town Manager Bob Farley and Police Chief Ken Brookins. Ivan Udell, who was born and raised in White Springs, was also in attendance. Udell explained he used to be an educator in Hamilton and Suwannee counties, but that he was called back to active duty with the U.S. Army in 2002.

“I work at the Pentagon and I’m here to do anything I can to help,” said Udell.

Steve Dopp from the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council was also in attendance, as well as Suwannee County District 4 Commissioner Phil Oxendine and Taylor Brown, the city manager of Trenton, who came to observe and learn.

Others from Hamilton County included Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Coalition Executive Director Grace McDonald, Economic Development Authority Director Susan Ramsey, County Coordinator Louie Goodin and District 4 County Commissioner Randy Ogburn, who said he was born and raised in White Springs and has had a timber business for the last 30 years.

George Glover, town manager of Jennings was also on hand, along with Engineer Joe Mittauer (Mittauer & Associates), Edwin McCook, land manager for Suwannee River Water Management District, who explained he is an active member of the Suwannee Bicycle Association (SBA) and the Florida Trail Association, both headquartered in White Springs.

The University of Florida was represented by Martin Gold, Director of the UF School of Architecture, and representing Florida State University Institute of Government was Diane Scholz.

Sharon Shea, president of SBA, explained that White Springs is an excellent town for eco-tourism, “but we need certain things,” she said, “like bedding, lodging and restaurants.”

“As you can see, we have partners, not just in town and in the county, but tri-county up to Gainesville and Jacksonville, and actually outside the state, as well,” said Miller.

The purpose of the meeting was for all involved to better understand the project and to finalize the scope of the effort. After the introductions, the program was turned over to Julie Dennis, who explained what the Competitive Florida program was about.

“This is a pilot initiative for us,” said Dennis. “White Springs has been enthusiastic about being one of our four guinea pigs in this effort. We want to work with you to better shape this initiative. The goal here is to create a technical assistance program that works for local governments.” Dennis went on to say that after working with White Springs community members, “Your enthusiasm is extremely contagious and it’s really fun to be here working with such passionate people.”

The presentation Dennis gave was informative and educational and it held everyone’s interest for  hours, as she spoke about ways to bolster the economy and create jobs by garnering community interest and bringing in private investors. Grant monies from state and federal agencies, she explained, are available for some projects, but for a community to succeed they need to be proactive in bringing businesses and investors into their town.

Miller detailed past economic development efforts, a current self-assessment review, and a look at future prospects for the town of White Springs.

After everyone devoured a delicious barbecue chicken lunch and raved about it afterward, it was time to discuss the building of a local team to put the pilot program in motion.

Later in the afternoon, those who wanted to were invited to join the mayor in a tour of the historic downtown area of White Springs, beginning with the tourism center that the town recently took over from the state park system to manage. Studio artist Wendy Jacobs is managing the center, which is in the process of being redecorated to fulfill the vision the town has for its function in the community.

Then it was off to the Adams Country Store, the SBA and a walk around the block to view other historic sites before checking out the old library building, the old Carver School, and several other sites in and around the town, including the Interstate 75/CR 136 interchange.

Dennis said they have until June 30 to complete their community case study for White Springs.

“Our work with White Springs extends beyond that,” Dennis assured everyone.

Much work is yet to be done from now until June and will encompass meetings with all the community partners, as well as joint meetings with the other three pilot communities in the state.

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