The Marble Falls Economic Development Corp. began the start of a promising journey a few months ago, but now seems to have taken a wrong turn.
Last summer, everyone felt a sense of expectancy after the EDC board appointed Christian Fletcher as the new executive director.
And why not? The EDC is a publicly funded agency playing a key role in the success of Marble Falls. The aim of the 4-B development sales-tax corporation is to attract and retain businesses, as well as create new jobs and investment in industry.
At first, it looked like the EDC was doing just that. The agency cut its ties to operations that didn’t fit the local business climate.
Ronn Motors Co. vacated the EDC-owned Colt Circle Building, ending a tumultuous run that included tax liens, late payments and constant drama. In its place, the EDC brought in CorWorth Building Systems, a company that manufactures public restrooms. CorWorth immediately began creating local jobs.
The future seemed bright. The EDC was fulfilling its mandate. A few months later, the EDC threw its financial support behind a feasibility project to determine whether a proposed sports complex will benefit Marble Falls. Proponents say a future complex will put more dollars into local restaurants, shops and hotels.
In addition, the EDC also rebuilt ties with City Council and the Marble Falls/Lake LBJ Chamber of Commerce.
And then, inexplicably, things seemed to veer off track. Instead of bringing more companies to town such as CorWorth, the EDC began to focus on expensive studies and surveys that so far have done little to boost the bottom lines of local businesses. The nonprofit spent thousands in tax money to hire out-of-town consultants such as The Retail Coach, a retail recruitment and research firm that develops what the company likes to call “demographics on steroids.”
But these “steroids” haven’t been all that helpful, at least so far. Among the “revelations”: shoppers in Marble Falls enjoy hunting and fishing, often drive pickups and want to eat in restaurants serving traditional country-style food.
In other words, the EDC paid a consultant $35,000 to tell merchants what they already knew. This is not a wise use of public money.
Another example of the EDC going off course is the expenditure of $17,000 in taxpayer funds to build a website that could feature real estate, local events and social-media integration. There are already plenty of local websites that offer such services. This redundancy is just another example of how the EDC is throwing the people’s money into the wind.
Even worse, some of the themes and elements for the proposed website could be “borrowed” from Door Number 3, a marketing firm that has tried to tout Marble Falls as a tourism destination. Anybody remember “Marble Falls, in the middle of everywhere”? Didn’t think so.
In addition, the EDC is authorized to spend an additional $130,000 on engineering and survey work for a road to nowhere — a street extension in the business and technology park, an area that for years has continually failed to attract more than a handful of companies and agencies. The EDC owns the business park, but again, couldn’t that money be better spent?
The Retail Coach staff talk about the possibility of bringing chain restaurants and big-box stores to their clients’ towns if their clients want them.
In Marble Falls, this kind of talk makes one shudder. It seems like the EDC is trying to remake Marble Falls into Bee Cave, Round Rock or Cedar Park. But Marble Falls isn’t those cities. It doesn’t have the same demographics or the larger population. And Marble Falls won’t for many years, not even after the Scott & White Healthcare hospital opens south of town.
Marble Falls is a charming, small and friendly town; a Highland Lakes icon.
Given that reality, why not have the Retail Coach seek out businesses such as CorWorth?
The operators of several local businesses have told this newspaper the community doesn’t need any more big-box chains.
Until the city’s population catches up with the EDC’s perceptions, Marble Falls can ill-afford large, monolithic chain stores that compete with existing merchants, offer low wages, and chase away mom-and-pop operations.
Instead, the EDC must get back on track and focus on the core mission: Find businesses that fit the profile of Marble Falls and bring them here, as well as keep existing ones thriving. We’ll be watching.