Edgar Campa-Palafox, Alachua County’s new economic development coordinator, is new to Gainesville—but he’s not new to economic development.
“We didn’t have one person whose job was to focus on economic development,” says Interim County Manager Rick Drummond. “It was timely to bring somebody on board who can eat, sleep, live and wake up thinking about economic development.”
Campa-Palafox, who began work in October, comes here from Texas, where he was a senior economic development specialist with the City of El Paso’s Planning and Economic Development Department. His accomplishments include helping develop the plan for the first technology incubator in the community of more than 800,000.
Before El Paso, Campa-Palafox worked for Tuscon Regional Economic Opportunities Inc. in Arizona and helped solar and renewable energy businesses develop. He has a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship and economics from the University of Arizona.
Campa-Palafox impressed county officials with his knowledge of Alachua County during his interview. “He knew more about what we were doing than we did,” Drummond says.
The county eliminated its economic director position in 2004, but the county commission reinstated it in the last budget. Drummond has charged Campa-Palafox with the following roles:
Serving as liaison between the county and the community, including the Innovation Gainesville process, municipalities and businesses.
Assisting the county’s Economic Development Advisory Committee with following through on its ideas.
Serving as a bridge between businesses that want to develop property in the unincorporated area and county staff.
One project on Campa-Palafox’s plate is helping with plans to redevelop the current county fairgrounds into a business and industrial park, in collaboration with the Gainesville Regional Airport. Although the project is contingent upon relocating the current fairgrounds to land the county purchased on Waldo Road north of the airport, planning is still progressing (see related story on page 11).
Campa-Palafox, who is single, says he’s enjoying living in Gainesville and having a chance to pursue his hobbies, which include running, hiking, photography, camping and soccer.
We interviewed Drummond and Campa-Palafox about the future of economic development in Alachua County.
What special role does county government play in economic development?
Drummond: Our activities cover the entire county. We’re an umbrella organization that can help answer the question, “How do you speak the governmental language, the bureaucratic language, to help the pieces fit together?” We also regulate land use in the unincorporated area.
Campa-Palafox: I can tell the business community, municipal governments and departments within county government about federal and state programs that become available.
I can also help weave together efforts of various groups and governments in taking advantage of these programs. We can make our municipalities stronger. If something is good for Newberry or another municipality, it can be good for the rest of the county because we’re all interconnected.
Edgar, what attracted you to this county and this job?
I found it very attractive that all of the pieces are coming together. There’s so much energy from all the different players—the university, the city, the chamber of commerce and now the county. Although the county was involved before, it’s now playing a more active role in economic development.
While El Paso opened its first incubator in 2010, Gainesville has four incubators. I don’t think people see what our four incubators mean in terms of what can come out of them.
I’m excited about being able to help leverage all those efforts and make the community better. It’s a challenge because its uncharted territory. I feel that what I did in Texas and in Arizona prepared me to bring some new ideas to the table while collaborating with other people.
How have people responded to you telling them about your role?
Everyone has been very supportive and welcoming. They’re glad to have a single point of contact for economic development. I’m getting a lot of emails about projects that the county may not have been aware of, but everyone has been so welcoming, and I like it a lot.
What surprised you about the community?
I’m interested in “economic gardening,” which includes providing information that entrepreneurs need to nurture their growth or to start a new business. Libraries are important for economic gardening.
I’ve been impressed by the libraries here. They’re welcoming and well-designed, and the staff is friendly. I want to help businesses by connecting them with the libraries’ databases that they don’t know about.
Although I had read about the University of Florida, I was impressed by how strong it is.
I was impressed that the Innovation Hub is almost full, although it just opened. In this time when you’re hearing all the bad news nationwide about unemployment and the down economy, the success of the Hub is really cool.
Being new allows me to appreciate the community more than locals do. The quality of life and the beauty of the community are key components in attracting more business here.
What are some new initiatives you’d like to start?
I would like to see more micro-financing for entrepreneurs, which includes lending up to $10,000. I don’t see the county taking a role in doing the lending, but we need to be a partner in promoting the idea and connecting the dots.
Micro-financing is a big thing because building business is always about the money. Entrepreneurs can have great ideas and great business plans, but if they don’t have access to money, they can’t get off the ground.
How can you help the county’s Economic Development Advisory Committee become more viable?
The members have great ideas, and by providing them with dedicated staff support, I think they can focus those ideas.
I want to help EDAC in making recommendations to the county commission. In El Paso, there was a tendency to try to solve the economic development problems of the world. The city came to realize it needed to focus on specific things that the community was struggling with.
EDAC needs to remind the commissioners, who have so much on their plates, about their economic development role.
What connection do you both see between economic development and tourist development?
Campa-Palafox: As someone who just located to Gainesville, the VisitGainesville website, which the county’s Visitor and Convention Bureau runs, was important in showing me the stuff that you can do here like hiking, kayaking and sports.
Drummond: Innovation Gainesville is focused on communicating a consistent message about the county, including working with the Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Patti Breedlove from the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator made a good point. She found that when some people searched Google for Alachua County, the first thing that they would see is that we supposedly have bad schools, based on some grading system popping up.
Where are all of the stories that would attract people? Patti knew that we have wonderful magnet schools.
One couple almost didn’t relocate here for an important position because the wife did a Google search and found nothing much of interest.
Innovation Gainesville is working with artist Annie Pais (founder of Florida’s Eden) to have a Web presence for the county and the county’s tourism office to have consistency in Web marketing.
Rick, how do you see Edgar helping with growth-management issues?
I see him playing two roles. First is providing people with a connection with someone who can do the “translation.” He can help someone developing a property connect with the right person in the county.
The other aspect that we’re going to work on will be identifying those areas in our process that are redundant, confusing or too complicated from the private sector’s point of view.
We need to make our process more in tune with the needs, while striking a balance with economic development, quality of life, environmental protection and good growth management.
It’s unfortunate that you only need one person in the system who gets a reputation of playing “gotcha.”
In my 30 years of experience with growth management, a big problem has been that people feel, “I don’t want to complain. I’m stuck with it. I don’t want to point a finger at one person because that person’s going to end up reviewing my stuff in the future.”
Having somebody who’s not involved in the day-to-day process and yet has the competence and respect of both sides of the process would be helpful.
What are some locations where the county can play a role in economic development?
Drummond: First, we can work with the existing industrial parks in the unincorporated area. There’s the Phoenix Commercial Park at the edge of Alachua, an industrial park on the fringes of Hawthorne and the area by the I-75 area down by Bear Archery. A lot of the Bear Archery Road area is going into the city.
So there’s not much left in the unincorporated area from an industrial park perspective. What we have tried to do is make sure there’s room for those larger-scale projects by being open to changing their rules to allow for mixed uses.
A lot of incubator graduate businesses can go in any one of our “activity centers.” They used to be limited to retail, commercial and offices. It’s all mixed use now, and we want live, work and play—the whole thing.
That opportunity is there. We’ll just have to wait for the marketplace to catch up.
We’re working with the City of Gainesville in creating a business industrial zone for the fairgrounds. That’s a model that I’d like to see us bring in where we’d want some of those larger-scale businesses.
Edgar, what excites you about the future?
I’m excited both about bringing new ideas and playing a role in current initiatives.
Economic development is a field that I chose. It’s not something that I came to by accident. I’m excited about the impact that you have in a community, or in a life, or a family or a person.
Maybe a family will be able to send a kid to college because of something that happened.
Fairgrounds Future Far From Settled
Developing a business and industrial park at the current Alachua County Fairgrounds has been a key part of the county economic development plans for nearly a decade, but the plans remain uncertain.
The county commission, led by former Commissioner Rodney Long, embarked on a plan to turn the current fairgrounds into a business and industrial park in the early 2000s. The commission moved forward by buying 148 acres at the northeast corner of Waldo Road and Northeast 63rd Avenue in 2006, targeting 102 acres for a new fairgrounds.
The county developed a master plan for the new fairgrounds, with a pricetag of $22 million for the first phase and a total long-term cost of more than $50 million.
All along, the commission has considered the county’s tourist development tax as the primary funding source for the new fairgrounds.
As time passed, small cities in the county targeted the “bed tax” dollars. Newberry suggested this fall that the county could use the money to buy the Canterbury Equestrian Showplace, but Gainesville opposed the idea and the county commission didn’t bite on it.
Plans for the current fairgrounds and the proposed fairgrounds are moving on the three following fronts:
County staff is paring down plans for the new fairgrounds, with a target budget of $14 million.
The county and the Gainesville Regional Airport Authority are working together on a master plan for the current fairgrounds and adjacent airport land.
County staff worked with City of Gainesville planners on a new business and industrial land-use designation, which would apply to the fairgrounds and could be a model for other locations with similar needs.