Going… Going…Gone

Monday is the retirement party for a long time Tallahassee friend of mine. It’s the symbolic end of an era. My era…

On the day I began working with the Florida state environmental agency in 1983, my boss introduced me to Van, who was a section administrator in the bureau at the time. During my interview, I had mentioned my interest in military history. Van had the same interest, so my boss made sure to mention that common interest during the introduction.

Van had started out at West Point but soon decided that the Viet Nam war was not his idea of national security. So he left to complete his engineering degree elsewhere.

Van’s and my interest in military history extended to board war gaming and we spent may weekends playing these games. He introduced me to computer war gaming and it was for that reason I bought a Commodore 128 sometime in the mid-80s.

It’s often said that work is at least as much, if not more than, about “who you know” as “what you know.” Because unless your job is some sort of solitary task, your job performance is often dependent on successfully interacting with others. This is especially true if your job involves “packaging” funding sources for a project to happen, as did my job for 20 years before retiring.

At the environmental agency, I was involved with funding large sewer projects in urban areas. We received about $90 million annually from the federal environmental agency and awarded these funds to cities and counties as grants which funded 55% of the project cost.  The big cities like Tampa, Orlando and Miami could fund their 45% from sewer fee revenues, either directly or indirectly (from loans pledged against future revenues). So there was little need to put together a funding package.

That changed when I moved to my last job. I went from big cities to rural cities with small populations. These cities never had any money. Most of them didn’t even bother to charge water or sewer rates that covered the cost of service, let alone save something for replacement projects.

In my new program, the most a city could get from us was $750,000. That doesn’t pay for much in water and sewer. So putting together a funding package involving other agencies in the water and sewer business became critical. Especially if the project was an economic development one which required major new infrastructure for a business creating 100+ jobs.

Just as there are many stores selling say, electronics, with different stores targeting different customers, so too is there differentiation in water and sewer funding. The program I left was focused on large cities on the idea that you get the most bang for your water and sewer buck from projects that have the most…flow. Because water and sewer infrastructure costs, like many other activities, enjoy economies of scale from spreading out the “overhead.” (Most groceries charge one price per pound for a package of meat with just a pound or two, and a lower price for a package with, say, five or more pounds.)

Folks in rural areas need water and sewer too. Often, they come from private wells on the property and a septic tank. But these often develop issues. Public infrastructure in a rural area has the problem of spreading a large cost among fewer people. Yet, rural areas are typically less wealthy than urban areas. .

Many rural area economies are based on agriculture. So the federal government created an agency specifically focused on assisting rural areas with infrastructure. That agency was initially called the Farmers Home Administration and then updated to Rural Development (RD). They were a typical funding partner since RD assistance was a combined grant and loan and our program was all grant. If a project cost $1.5 million, our ability to fund half of it with a grant and the rest from an RD grant and loan made the project more financially feasible for the local government than a grant and loan for $1.5 million.

Other agencies we partnered with were a federal agency for economic development if the project resulted in job creation and also a state funded economic development office in the governor’s office. Through quarterly meetings to “shop” projects around, I quickly got to know all my counterparts in these other agencies. For whatever reasons, we were a very congenial group.

Large economic development projects particularly needed funding packages because the cost was so high and adjacent states were often also competing for the project. Tallahassee is about 30 miles from Georgia and about 70 miles from Alabama. That distance is normally not critical for a business location if one state is going to offer significantly more…incentive…than another.

Since the Tallahassee area is rural and I was the project manager for the area, any large economic development project brewing in the region usually came to me first since we had no funding deadlines. If the project qualified and we had the money, the project was funded. But in most instances, I first had to play “let’s make a deal” with other agencies.

A good working relationship with my counterparts at the other agencies was very helpful. If I made the call, the agency had a comfort level that we had vetted the project and either it was great or we would fill them in on key issues so they didn’t need to take up valuable time. Then, we could meet with the business and local government to discuss all issues with all parties at one time and see who could come into the project.

But over 20 years, folks often move on…

Willie worked at the federal economic development agency in the Atlanta region. He went to college in Florida and has family here. So of course any Florida project got his special attention, even though his area covered about 12 southern states, including states that Florida was often competing with.

My first “mega” project involved a “dollar” store distribution center with a $50 million dollar private investment and about 250 jobs. Georgia and Alabama were also competing for the warehouse. We were coming up short, so I called Willie and asked if he had about $2 million lying around he could throw into the pot. He got back to me in a few hours and said he could scrape it up for a project that big. That $2 million was “only” $10,000 per job, a relative bargain. (Our upper limit was $30,000 per job, with $10,000 or less the preferred cost.)

After Obama was elected, the good news was that Willie was tapped for regional administrator. The bad news is that he was not going to be top dog in the Atlanta region but in Philadelphia. His replacement was someone who’d be retiring in a few years and while there was a “professional” relationship it was not the strong “personal” one which can make a difference in a “gray” situation.

Then, th economic development chief in the Governor’s office, who had been there as long as I can remember no matter who was Governor because of her valuable institutional memory, retired. She’s riding motorcycles now… I don’t even remember who replaced her.

Susie’s and my boss at the environmental agency also retired. His replacement was a retired military person and those folks usually have a “by the book” perspective not as conducive to my “rabbit out of the hat” style as his predecessor did.

Susie sitting on Van's lap and 2 co-workers in the late 80s.

My wife Susie sitting on Van’s lap     and 2 co-workers in the late 80s.

Van represents the last of the “old guard” from my career. So this is another reason I’m glad I retired last year. If I was still working, I’m not sure how I’d answer when my boss asked: “who ya gonna call?” for a project deal. They’re all gone…

But we’ll always have the stories. And those who remember us will tell those stories to those who never knew us.




3 responses to “Going… Going…Gone

  1. “Then, th economic development chief in the Governor’s office, who had been there as long as I can remember no matter who was Governor because of her valuable institutional memory, retired. She’s riding motorcycles now… I don’t even remember who replaced her.”

    You must be talking about MHB, I did a lot of work with her over the years. Fine person.

  2. I first worked with her in 1991 when she was with the then Department of Commerce Bureau of Business Assistance. Not long afterwards she became the Chief of that Bureau. She went to Rural with the change to EFI and I went to Perry for a few years, so we continued to work together. Most of the time we were collaborators working in concert and she was quite helpful. I do remember one occasion when we were on opposite sides of a personnel decision, I found her to be a challenging adversary. Several years later when I was back in Tampa she called to alert me to a colleagues death. I had dreamed of them both the night before, that was freaky to us both.

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