Aluminum plants, dilapidated downtown hotels and the Punta Gorda Airport were among the topics during Skype interviews for the job of Charlotte County economic development director.
Three men interviewed with the Charlotte County Commissioners this week. After those online interviews, the board decided to bring in all three for in-person interviews.
“I feel far better today than I felt after the first set of interviews,” said Commissioner Christopher Constance.
The board had interviewed five candidates in March, and settled on one with some dispute. That candidate increased his salary request and moving costs, leading to the board declining his request and start over. They received another eight applicants, narrowing that down to three.
Interim Economic Director Dave Gammon is the in-house candidate with six months on the job in addition to three years here as the business recruitment supervisor.
Christopher Pullen is economic development director for Ashland, Kentucky, a city of 29,000 in Appalachia. Prior to that, he was a basketball coach for colleges and international professional players.
George Sakas is economic development director for the Chicago Executive Airport. He was a town administrator in Illinois and worked for the Army Corps of Engineers earlier.
Gammon described his success in negotiating the still unfolding manufacturing projects at the Punta Gorda Airport. Those are Intrepid Aerospace and Marine Metalcraft.
He used Intrepid as an example of a project where he had to take an active role, persuading the company to consider the move from Fort Myers and helping them develop the potential customers.
“That one took a little more handholding,” he said of the Intrepid project, which could bring hundreds of airplane mechanics jobs to the county.
Pullen worked to dramatically increase community college enrollment and welding training in the region that has been hard hit by loss of steel production. He said he commissioned research showing the region has eight times the national average of metalworkers.
“It’s made us ground zero for several projects that are starting to come to fruition,” he said.
He touted negotiations to bring in Braidy Industries, the nation’s first aluminum manufacturing plant in 37 years. Recent headlines, however, show national politicians investigating that company for its Russian investments.
Pullen also described successful deals to entice Marriott to renovate a large downtown hotel that was decaying and dragging down the quality of life downtown.
“Quality of life does come into play when you are recruiting industry,” he said.
Sakas said while working for Desplanes, Illinois, he successfully negotiated a deal with a German pharmaceutical company, Vetter, to set up shop bringing in hundreds of professional jobs.
Sakas also oversaw the redevelopment of an aging downtown in Desplanes bringing in incentives to improve business facades and interior space.
“That brought up the level of the entire neighborhood,” he said of the project.
Commissioners took turns asking questions about difficult negotiations, management style and assessment of Charlotte County’s strengths and weaknesses.
Gammon said the county’s liability is that it is not well known nationally.
Sakas said the county appears to have projects that started before the recession that are ready to go now.
“It’s a little bit of a last frontier there on the Gulf Coast between Tampa Bay and Naples,” Sakas said, “and that’s exciting.”
Lack of diversity in housing hurts the county, he said.
“There’s not a diversity of entry level housing,” he said. “There are entry level jobs. Those aspects need to be smoothed out.”
Pullen recommended taking the show on the road, including the Paris Air Show, to market the county’s airport.
Gammon noted he is already meeting with Space Florida, the state sponsored marketing arm to aerospace, and with Florida Gulf Coast University on new aeronautics programs.
In the end, several commissioners noted that the two out-of-state applicants were thinking of salaries higher than the commission was thinking. Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch noted, however, that the board did not set a limit. Commissioners decided to interview all the candidates anyway.
“When he sees what’s available down here, he may not require that higher number,” said Commissioner Ken Doherty of Sakas, who said he already makes $135,000.