INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – For Bill Penney, part of the role of a community bank is to give back to its clients, customers and local investors through community service.
Perhaps none of his charitable efforts is more important than his work with the Chamber of Commerce and his role as Chairman of the Economic Development Division. It is through that position that Penney, working closely with Helene Caseltine, the Chamber’s Director of Economic Development, has gone on a mission to bring more jobs to Indian River County.
“We need to diversify our job base,” he said. “We knew that this job base was construction related but we didn’t realize how deeply that went. When the construction dried up as it has, gas stations, restaurants, lawyers, doctors, accountants, everybody I talked to felt a real slow down.”
Penney says the problems have been building for a long time and stem in part from the anti-growth movement that took root in Indian River County.
“I think where we are right now is the inattention to our economic development the last 15 years,” he said. “It was kind of a bad word if you talked about economic development, there was that word development and it was associated with antigrowth sentiment in this community. I kept trying to tell everybody it isn’t about rooftops, it is about jobs.”
There have been some successes – most notably the INEOS New Planet BioEnergy plant for which construction has just started and NetBoss Technologies, which has recently set up operation in Sebastian.
In all, according to a report by the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Division, their efforts thus far have created 137 jobs since the summer of 2009 and they are focusing on attracting high tech and green jobs that require little infrastructure build out to begin operations.
“We are seeing a bit of a high tech sector building here, these are smaller companies that are 30 or 50 employees, which I think is a more sustainable job base,” he said. “You don’t want an auto plant to come in here and employ 2,000 people because then they shut down and what happens, you have 2,000 people suddenly unemployed.”
While their efforts are beginning to pay off and almost everyone from the government to the private sector is working together, there is still a long way to go.
“We have had successes in the past year or two and we have started to produce jobs, but it is just not enough to solve the problem,” he said. “I’d like to say the efforts that we are undertaking right now hopefully will show the next time we enter a recession.”