The COVID-19 pandemic is killing jobs. It’s a national fact. Yet, for some reason, Ocala/Marion County didn’t get the memo.
On Wednesday, at the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership’s monthly breakfast, the program was part victory lap, part history lesson. As the CEP continued its well-deserved reveling over being named the National Chamber of the Year – yes, they’re No. 1 – CEO Kevin Sheilley shared a couple numbers that arguably explain why they’re No.1.
Last month, the Ocala metro area posted an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent. That is two full percentage points lower than the statewide rate of 7.6 percent, and 2.3 points below the national average of 7.9 percent. Good numbers.
Even better was the fact that while many communities are continuing to lose jobs to the pandemic, Marion County saw a gain of 1,700 new jobs in September … over last September. That’s right, while much of country is looking to just get back to 2019 job levels, Ocala is exceeding them.
Of course, that’s what we should expect when we’ve got the No. 1 chamber of commerce in the United States, right? With the trophy from Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives literally sitting center stage Wednesday, three people who helped form the CEP out of the old Chamber of Commerce and the now-defunct Economic Development Corp. (EDC) talked about how they got to be the best.
Quick history: Prior to 2011, Ocala had a Chamber of Commerce and the EDC, both of which undertook economic development efforts. The EDC typically dealt with big economic development projects and big employers, what longtime EDC chief Pete Tesch affectionately called “the captains of industry.” The Chamber, meanwhile, served largely smaller businesses and was less involved in job recruitment. The EDC had more money, the Chamber had more members.
But as longtime CEP board member Kevin McDonald said Wednesday, “We were a dysfunction junction. We weren’t necessarily on the same team, and it was obvious.”
We were also in the grips of a grinding recession and a housing bubble collapse that hit Ocala harder than almost anywhere in the country.
Local beer distributor Doug Cone, who was a big contributor to and board member of the EDC, started pushing to form a new organization that would be unified and focused on job creation. There was pushback aplenty. There was also support aplenty.
The whole effort came down to a meeting of the minds at the Webber Center at the College of Central Florida where a contentious vote was taken by EDC and Chamber leaders on whether to move ahead with the unification plan. It was loud and emotional. There was shouting. There was fist-pounding. There were accusations. There were hurt feelings.
In the end, after three headcounts, the group voted to fold the EDC and Chamber of Commerce and create the oddly named Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership, aka CEP – by a single vote.
The CEP was formally created eight years ago this month. A lot of good things have happened in those eight years. The recession has ended. Ocala opened a desperately needed industrial park and is opening a second, bigger one. Employment is up. Wages are up. The CEP is No. 1 in the nation. We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, economically speaking. (Although, let’s not forget, almost half of the families in Ocala/Marion County still struggle to pay their essential monthly living expenses. So, there’s plenty of work to be done.)
But while Cone, McDonald and Duke Energy’s Amy Mangan recited the history and touted the success of the CEP on Wednesday, it was the words of current CEP board Chairwoman Angie Lewis that struck me. She noted that since the CEP brought the entire business community together, we have steadily seen more and more collaboration on economic development efforts across the community.
You see, back in 2011, the city and the county just didn’t like each other – and certainly didn’t work well together. There were jealousies and turf battles. The economic development folks had to fight to get things done through them. The School Board largely ignored the business community, and so the business community largely ignored the School Board.
The CEP laid the law down with the city and county and begrudging cooperation between the two governments began to occur. It was an immediate plus. Successes were achieved and the cooperation intensified. Everyone likes to be on a winning team, you know.
The CEP and the School Board, through a mix of regime change at the school district and the remarkable efforts of now-Deputy Superintendent Mark Vianello to create vocational and skills training programs in the schools that benefit the business community, are enjoying a collaborative relationship like never before, and one that is growing in scope and mutual benefit. It’s capturing national attention.
The result of all this collaboration and cooperation is we are no longer dysfunctional when it comes to economic development. In fact, we’re pretty darn good at it. We are seeing job gains unlike almost any community anywhere. And, after years of everyone going their own way, the city, the county and the school system are working in concert with the business community to everyone’s benefit, not the least our young people.
I asked Cone if holding the title of No. 1 chamber in the country would help Ocala recruit even more new jobs, and he was uncertain. What he was certain about, though, is that through unification and ever-increasing collaboration, more and more companies have Ocala on their radar.
“This community has eyes on it that we don’t even know about,” he said. “There still are major companies out there looking at this community because of work force, location, affordability and so on.”
I’m not much on mottos, but I once lived in a community whose chamber of commerce’s motto was, “Working together works.” Here in Ocala, what we’re seeing on the economic development front proves there is truth in those words.