Florida has identified 12 counties, including Highlands, that haven’t recovered from the recession, and state officials want to determine what is needed to improve the economy in those communities.

In an effort to do that, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will hold a roundtable discussion this week in Sebring. It will run from 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center Auditorium, 4509 George Blvd.

Gov. Rick Scott has created a special initiative to work with counties whose economies have not recovered as quickly as other areas in Florida.

The project is called the 12 Counties Initiative.

In addition to Highlands, the other counties are: Glades, Hendry, Calhoun, Gadsden, Taylor, Putnam, Marion, Citrus, Hernando, Sumter and Indian River.

The criteria used by the state to identify counties involves employment, wages and the labor force. They include: high unemployment, minimal labor force growth, low labor force participation rate, annual wages that are below state average, rate of individuals with disabilities is above state average, low population growth, few job opportunities, high percentage of workforce commutes to another county, poverty rate above state average, food stamp recipients above state average and low educational attainment.

Taylor Benson, the county’s economic development manager, said 20 to 25 representatives from various state agencies are expected to attend.

Enterprise Florida, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Department of Transportation are possibly among them.

In an email, Benson said the event is designed to bring together state agencies, local government, businesses and community organizations.

She added that her office has contacted more than 150 stakeholders locally. Among them are: Highlands County Commission, municipalities and special improvement districts in the county, CareerSource Heartland, the Industrial Development Authority/Economic Development Commission, the School Board of Highlands County, the county’s five constitutional officers, top employers in Highlands, the county’s state and congressional delegations, United Way, Habitat for Humanity, representatives from the real estate and development business, all three chambers of commerce, Central Florida Regional Planning Council, South Florida State College, all community redevelopment associations and the Florida Heartland Economic Region of Opportunity.

“This is an important opportunity for Highlands County to better connect with our state partners and leverage the resources that are available to help advance our community, “ Benson said in the email. “This is a proactive effort by the state to learn more about the needs of our community straight from the source. It’s our opportunity to ensure that they focus their efforts on what we truly want and need.”

The event will begin with a brief overview of the county presented by the economic development office.

Grey Dodge, policy director for the Department of Economic Opportunity, will then lead attendees through a moderated discussion about the strengths, challenges and top priorities of economic development in Highlands. The priorities identified by the group will be used by the state to develop a roadmap for recovery as well as match the priorities with potental state and federal resources.

Benson is grateful the state included Highlands in this initiative and appreciates the effort they are making to visit the county.

“We look forward to working with them on this project, and we’re eager to see the impact this will have on our community,” she said in the email.

The event is open to the public.


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