MANATEE -- Skepticism from a couple of State College of Florida board members may be the greatest barrier to the revival of the DEAL, touted earlier this year as a key answer to the area’s economic woes.
That makes for a far different landscape than when SCF President Lars Hafner and several influential community leaders first announced the Design and Economic Acceleration Lab nearly a year ago.
Only three of SCF’s nine board members responded to a request for interviews about the DEAL, originally announced in January.
Two of them said the project didn’t focus enough on educating SCF’s students, and one said she doesn’t know enough about it to comment.
“In this environment, spending capital on things that are not directly related to educating the people that need it in the community are going to be looked at dimly,” says board President Carlos Beruff. “I’ve always been a bit skeptical.”
Carol Trigueiro went even further in his critique of the DEAL, a $14.4 million facility proposed to be built on 10 acres in Lakewood Ranch. The regional economic development hub proposed for eastern Lakewood Ranch had been pitched as a one-stop shop for business resources.
Trigueiro says the project would need to more directly benefit SCF to earn his support. It would also need to be more fully explained.
“To me, the DEAL was just an incomplete idea,” Trigueiro says. “It was a lot of wishful thinking, from my viewpoint. As it was presented before, it needs to be modified. There needs to be another presentation about exactly what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and it needs to be concrete.”
For the first half of 2011, the DEAL seemed to be a foregone conclusion, at least in the manner it was presented by Hafner and the long line of high-profile people who helped him announce it.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll attended a press conference in January to announce the DEAL. “Incredibly fantastic” is how a Manatee County commissioner described the project. “A great start for the future” were the words used by a former board member at SCF.
Hafner, who personally presented graphics-heavy speeches about the project throughout the area, even traveled to Tallahassee to promote the DEAL.
But it’s now been at least four months since the project has been discussed in public. The words “mothballs,” “skeptical” and “in the freezer” are now how some are choosing to describe the DEAL.
And Hafner, who from January to June was personally vying for the DEAL’s promise, is now leaving all comments about it to his public relations staff.
“He has said all he’s going to say on this until he gets an indication from his board on how they want him to proceed,” says Kathy Walker, SCF spokesperson. “The concept is good and alive. But whether or not it is to be built the way it was envisioned a few months ago is yet to be known.”
Hafner was not alone in his initial enthusiasm for the project. The nonprofit Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, joined SCF in introducing the DEAL back in January.
In addition to Carroll, dignitaries that attended the project’s announcement included U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, state sens. Mike Bennett and Nancy Detert, and state Rep. Greg Steube.
Board leaders for the Manatee County Economic Development Council and the Sarasota County Economic Development Corp. also attended in support of the announcement.
The project was to occupy 10 acres at the start, then eventually 369 acres set aside by Lakewood Ranch. It was to feature a 72,000-square-foot facility that included an auditorium, business incubator laboratory and office space for several job-generating entities, including the two economic development agencies.
Lakewood Ranch still is reserving the land, says spokesperson Candace McElyea, and its leaders are “really optimistic that it’s going to move forward.
“It would be a phenomenal addition to the region for economic development,” she said.
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation also remains interested in participating in the DEAL, says Mark Pritchett, the foundation’s senior vice president for community investment. It would choose the DEAL as one of several area offices for CareerEdge, a job training program the foundation was instrumental in starting.
But both McElyea and Pritchett say SCF would need to lead any effort to revive the DEAL.
“I think Lars is the key player,” Pritchett said.
McElyea agreed: “At this point, it’s in the hands of Dr. Hafner and SCF board members.”
The new leaders of the two counties’ economic development groups have little to say about the project.
“It’s not our project, so it really is incumbent on those who were the key players in the project to communicate with the other organizations,” says Sharon Hillstrom, interim executive director of Manatee’s economic development council.
“This wasn’t an idea initiated by the EDC, and my plate is full of other things,” says Mark Huey, executive director of Sarasota’s Economic Development Corp.
Both Huey and Hillstrom are new to their posts: Huey started in July, and Hillstrom took her interim post in August. Their newcomer status, which many of SCF’s current board members share, is the biggest reason the DEAL is not getting a lot of discussion time, Walker says.
“(The original DEAL) was a lot of great ideas that came out of a particular group of people,” she says. “That group of people does not exist anymore. There are new people, and whether or not these new people come together with the same shared vision will be up to them.”
Beruff said the soonest he expects the DEAL to be discussed again is January or February, when the SCF board prepares its annual budget.
Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.