Government, business leaders discuss future of local economy

SEBASTIAN – Representatives from business and nearly every municipality in Indian River County gathered Thursday to take their collective pulses on their operations or spheres of interest and how they might impact the local economy in 2010. Despite having the third highest unemployment rate in the state at over 14 percent, leaders say they are on the right track for improving the jobs outlook in the county.

From job grants and tax abatement programs to marketing strategies, commissioners, city council members and those in the private sector said they are working together to craft ways of generating more jobs and stimulating growth.Below is an update on major employers already doing business in the county and some new operations who hope to expand their operations in the coming months.

Piper shows signs of growth

Commissioner Wesley Davis was tapped to give an update on Piper Aircraft. Piper officials did not appear at the summit.

The commissioner said that despite the setbacks Piper has sustained due to the depressed economy, the Board of County Commissioners stands behind its decision to keep the Piper in Vero Beach.

“It will turn around,” Davis said of the market and Piper’s long-term outlook.

To date, the county has provided $4 million to Piper in agreed to incentives. The state has allocated $6.67 million.

As part of the agreement to keep Piper in the area, county and state officials pledged $32 million in incentives. The company has only received $10.67 million and will not receive any more until it meets its employment criteria set in the agreement, Davis said.

Helene Caseltine, of the Indian River Chamber of Commerce, also spoke about Piper, saying that had the company relocated out of the area in 2008, the county would have lost $1 billion in economic impact.

Every year, the company infuses $518 million into the local economy, she said.

“Piper does see things picking up,” Commissioner Davis said, noting that with the new Singapore-based ownership comes international exposure it would not have otherwise had.

Officials at the aviation company have also told him they expect to see a more than 50 percent increase in production this year over last year when they delivered 90 planes.


Dodgertown out of the mothballs

“We were mothballed this time last year,” sVice President of Minor League Baseball Craig Callan said of the Dodgertown complex. Last year the sports complex employed just a couple people to maintain the grounds and facilities.

Now, Dodgertown boasts 28 full time employees – many of whom had been let go previously. Still, the center is not up to full strength, but Callan said they’re working on it.

“We have got to be multi-purpose,” he said, explaining that they will be hosting a professional women’s soccer team in March, the Washington Freedom, and has expanded services to include umpire training.

There are also plans to convert two half-fields (infield baseball diamonds) into youth and girls softball fields.

“We’re doing a lot of behind the scenes work,” Callan said. They are constructing new baseball mounds and fixing up the batting cages, along with upgrading the facilities in general.

Dodgertown will play host to the RussMatt tournament and will draw 60 high school and college teams that are expected to generate between 3,000 and 3,500 hotel night stays for the tournaments which begin at the end of this month.

“We’re not recession proof,” Callan said, but with the diversification, Dodgertown could once again be an active sports hub in the county.


New industries moving in

Government leaders heard from two innovative businesses looking to make it big in Indian River County.

The first was INEOS New Planet Bio Energy, a company that plans to set up a test facility adjacent to the Indian River County landfill to convert much of the garbage into the ethanol added to gasoline.

“We need to convince the world” that the system will work and the rules can be followed, Vice President of Operations Tex Carter said.

The system, simply put, turns organic material into gas, which is cooled and liquefied and then fed bacteria that excretes ethanol. The ethanol is then processed and blended with gasoline and sold at the gas pump.

Carter said that his company was meeting with officials from the Department of Energy today to walk the proposed site, and if the department appears receptive, the company would move forward with acquiring the site.

He said they have a signed agreement with the current property to close by June if all goes well.

The other company was eMindful, an Internet-based health and wellness business that received a county jobs grant in January.

The company expects to hire at least seven people before the end of the year, adding to the two employees they currently have and then ramp up with more hires in 2011 and 2012 in the neighborhood of 48 to 60 employees earning an average annual salary of $52,000-plus.

President Kelley McCabe said the premise of the business is to offer live, real-time online health courses that teach users how to reduce stress, modify their behaviors and manage pain more effectively.

She said that companies that have already sent employees through the online classes have seen those employees’ productivity levels improve and their associated health care costs decrease.

eMindful is one of three businesses that have received job grants from the county. The other two are SpectorSoft and OcuCue LLC.

This is the second economic development summit held in the county – the first being in February 2009.

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