Council to evaluate economic development agencies

BROOKINGS – The Brookings City Council has approved evaluating city funding to four outside agencies in the future.

The council heard a workshop on the 2022 budget during Tuesday’s study session.

Councilor Nick Wendell broached an “exploration” of “economic development agencies” including the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Brookings Economic Development Corporation, the Brookings Chamber of Commerce, and the Research Park.

“Those four agencies clustered together account for north of $860,000 in annual city appropriations,” Wendell said, adding it would be a good time “to evaluate our ongoing funding relationship with those four agencies.”

“I think we’ve all lived through an interesting couple of years” which have brought questions to the surface, Wendell said.

He said he’d like the council to keep the already approved dollars in the budget.

Wendell asked that the council commit “to doing some discovery around those four agencies, their operations, their return on investment for those city dollars we continue to invest, if there are opportunities for efficiencies among the agencies.”

He noted the money would be made in installments to the agencies and not as a lump sum.

Wendell suggested the city engage a consultant to help them evaluate economic development activity in the city that is currently being funded through city allocation and “make some recommendations moving forward.”

“And by the second quarter of 2022, we’d maybe have a road map of recommendations … of potential changes or opportunities for efficiencies,” Wendell said.

Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne said it was “a really good idea” and she’s had several conversations in the community which involve questions about how the funds are allocated to each organization and how it all works.

“I think (doing the evaluation) is something that should be done, as we are stewards of those dollars, and … a pretty hefty dollar amount, as well,” Tilton Byrne said.

She noted the Chamber was on the list.

“The downtown funding that we provide is kind of wrapped up in that dollar amount, as well,” Tilton Byrne said, adding it would be appropriate to have “a really thoughtful discussion” about how those funds are used, especially in conjunction with a downtown strategic plan.

Councilor Patty Bacon said she supported Wendell and Tilton Byrne’s comments.

“I think it’s time to just have a look at it, not with any intent in mind, other than just having a better understanding on how our funds are being invested,” Bacon said.

Economic development

Tilton Byrne said it was about finding ways to be more efficient and support collaboration.

“Brookings is a really vibrant community and one that does really well with economic development. And I think part of the reason for that – a big part of the reason for that – is because of all of these organizations. And I don’t want to sell that short; I think that these are very important organizations and ones that really play a great role in our community, doing a great job around economic development,” Tilton Byrne said.

She asked if there was anything in the budget process “to ensure that this happens.”

City Manager Paul Briseno said the council could make sure the funds be paid in four installments.

Tilton Byrne wanted to make sure the council maintained its ability to be flexible “to adjust and be a little more nimble” with the allocations.

“Especially if you do it as one big group,” Briseno said.

“I just want to make sure that we are thoughtful in the way that we craft that language in the process we go through, so that we achieve what we are talking about achieving, but so that we also don’t take any of these organizations by surprise, if we adjust their funding,” Tilton Byrne said.

Uncomfortable conversations

Councilor Leah Brink supported the idea, calling it “wise,” but questioned “the actual how of that process.” She pointed out the four agencies might be duplicating efforts or “just the lack of things being maximally efficient.”

“What would that process really look like? What could we realistically ask of these partner agencies to provide us in order to set us up with the knowledge that we would need to actually make a decision?” Brink asked.

Wendell said it makes sense to establish a task force with members from staff and the agencies’ board members to evaluate the four agencies.

“I do think that we have some dynamic, in particular, board members in these organizations that have a real vested interest in the future of the mission of these organizations,” Wendell said.

“I think it’s gonna require probably some uncomfortable conversations at times, and we’re all gonna have to go into it understanding that we’re in this with kind of a shared mission to serve the Brookings community,” Wendell said.

He said it will require some budget transparency, since the city is providing the funding and the council needs to understand what percentage the city’s contribution is of each organization’s budget and what will be impacted if the funding shifts.

Consultants and the future

Wendell said there have been conversations about bringing in a consultant and whether there is funding for that.

Briseno said a consultant was a good idea because they would have more of an unbiased opinion on what each entity brings to the table.

Wendell asked if there was American Rescue Plan funding available and wondered if there was any federal funding available. Briseno said city staff hasn’t gotten that far yet.

Councilor Wayne Avery said he was in favor of the suggestions, and council should look at what economic development looks like now.

“It’s workforce development we need,” he said, adding he’s meeting a lot of people who have moved to Brookings from somewhere else to get work and quality of life; they like the fact that Brookings has a university, some are retired. What brings people to Brookings is going to change with time and the agencies’ purposes will change with that, Avery said.

“And it might not be the same as it was when these organizations were founded,” Avery said.

Councilor Joey Collins said it was a great idea, and he’d like to move forward with it, but had a question about the consulting agency.

“In my opinion, we have a lot of smart people here that can figure things out,” Collins said.

Mayor Ope Niemeyer said he likes the idea of an outside agency because “it’s a third party that doesn’t have any skin in the game.” He thinks the third party can find the common ground where the agencies overlap.

“I hate to see somebody doing the same thing in two different departments. There’s no sense wasting our funds and their time,” Niemeyer said.

Brink said the council has to be careful of its response and not just get a consultant because it’s easier than having conversations with the agencies.

She doesn’t believe it would make sense to spend money on a consultant “unless we were pretty confident that we were maybe going to save some money in the long term.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the dollar amounts that are allocated to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Economic Development Corporation, the Chamber and the Research Park, including the funding for downtown, as one lump sum for economic development purposes, with the intent to meet as a working group to further decide how to allocate those funds in the future.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]


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