By VERNON ROBISON
Economic development was a main topic on the agenda for the Mesquite City Council on Tuesday, Aug. 24. With three agenda items dealing with this topic, the council ended up splitting its vote on how to structure the city’s economic development efforts in the future and on whether to renew its existing contracts with economic development firms.
For the first agenda item, the council dealt with the question of whether to continue contracting out economic development activities to an outside firm, or whether it would be best to bring the role in house to be done by city staffers.
Interim City Manager Andy Barton explained that the community currently has contracts with two economic development firms doing work for the city. These two contracts total up to about $21,000 per month, Barton said. The city has budgeted $230,000 in this fiscal year for economic development.
More than a decade ago the city had a history of hiring an in-house staffer to work on economic development, Barton recalled. But for many years now, the role has been contracted, first by the Mesquite Regional Business organization, and more recently by two private firms.
“There has been recent talk among the council about hiring an interim employee to do economic development,” Barton said, “or of finding some other method to achieve the goals. So staff would like some direction on how you want to proceed with economic development in coming months.”
There was division on this question amongst the council members.
Councilman Brian Wursten said that, over the past five years that he has served on the council, he had learned the importance of contracting the economic development role out to an expert firm.
“We have seen again and again that confidentiality is such a key factor as businesses are in that stage of looking at the community,” Wursten said. “Sometimes you just don’t get that when dealing with a public entity. I just don’t see why we would look at bringing this in house when that is such a key factor to this ultimate goal.”
Councilman Wes Boger agreed with Wursten. “I agree that confidentiality is vital and I don’t know that we would always get that coming through City Hall.”
But Councilwoman Sandra Ramaker didn’t understand why this would be such a major issue. “I don’t see why we can’t have confidentiality,” she said. “I really believe that economic development should come back in house and that we can work out a solution to that concern. I just think it would be a smoother and better operation and I’d like to see us have staff look into bringing it in house.”
Council member Karen Dutkowski agreed with Ramaker that the decision should not be based on the confidentiality issue. She was more concerned about retaining control of how the money is spent.
“My concern is that $230,000 is a lot of money!” Dutkowski said. “We need to be pretty clear on how we want to spend it and that we get a return on the investment. When you have it in house, you are able to keep on top of it and keep it moving forward.”
Council member George Gault said that his preference was to contract the work out. But he wanted to explore making a change in the contract to a larger, more regional entity. He suggested that the city should explore contracting these services out to Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance (LVGEA), the regional economic development authority for all of Southern Nevada.
The two entities currently under contract with Mesquite include B.E. Consultants and Citiwide Consultants. Gault said that good things had been done by both of these two groups. But he hadn’t seen a comprehensive strategy come from either firm to take a large-scale regional approach to economic development.
“I’d really like to see a more complete economic development program with more marketing, some business retention and expansion programs and so on,” Gault said. “That is my suggestion.”
Mesquite mayor Al Litman said that the city has not done well in the past with in-house recruitment for economic development roles. “It hasn’t been a great success and we have certainly done much better outside,” he said.
Litman also expressed interest in exploring what the LVGEA has to offer the city.
In the end, Wursten made the motion to give direction to city staff to continue handling economic development on a contractual basis. The motion was approved on a 3-2 vote with Ramaker and Dutkowski being opposed.
In the second item, the council decided unanimously not to renew the contract with B.E. Consultants after its expiration in September.
Wursten made the motion recommending that the contract be ended with the company’s principal Bill Edmiston. “He has had some flowery presentations, but very little substance,” Wursten said. “He doesn’t live here, he is not around and he doesn’t see the things that we really need in the city.”
The third item was a decision whether to continue the city’s contract with Citywide Consulting, owned by Mesquite resident Cody Law. Over the past six months, Law has been assisted in the contracted work by former Mesquite Regional Business director Colton Teerlink.
Barton explained that the current contract pays Citywide $15,000 per month. The contract is set to expire at the end of September. Law was asking for an annual renewal to the contract. The proposal was to increase the contract to nearly $20,000 per month which would max out the amount budgeted by the city for economic development.
City Attorney Adam Anderson informed the council that an escape clause had been included in the contract to allow either party to cancel the agreement with a 30 day notice.
In a public comment, Teerlink detailed some of the work that he and Law had done to lay the groundwork for bringing a major manufacturing facility to Mesquite. The deal was not final yet, so no official announcement had yet been made and the deal was still under a non-disclosure agreement, he said. But as the deal had progressed it had been labeled as “Project Washboard” to maintain confidentiality.
Teerlink said that economic impact estimates showed that Project Washboard would bring $8.6 million in revenues to the city over the next ten years.
“That is $860,000 per year just in property tax revenue,” Teerlink said. “So budget (on economic development) is really a non-issue item. We have got you covered there.”
Boger commented on a letter to city council written by the site selectors working on Project Washboard.
“They are basically singing the praises of Mr. Law and Mr. Teerlink,” Boger said. “And when they were here on their visit, they mentioned to me specifically that without Citywide, they would not have been here at all, they never would have returned for multiple visits. Basically, they said that we are getting this project because of Cody (Law) and Colton (Teerlink).”
In a comment, Law stated that a public announcement about Project Washboard was imminent. “I have the press release in my inbox and all I have to do is update it and put it out there when they give the word,” he said.
Law added that he and Teerlink had also been working on rural housing projects, many of which wsere coming to fruition. The company was also working on bringing smaller commercial ventures to the city including an auto lube shop, car wash operation, a number of franchise restaurants and more, Law said.
Wursten said that Law being a resident of Mesquite gave him an advantage as far as he was concerned. “He lives here and is tied to this community,” Wursten said. “That is a very important piece if we start looking outside of the area. I have a hard time understanding how somebody who lives in Vegas or outside of this area can really give us what we need for economic development.”
At the beginning of the Citywide discussion, Gault had reiterated again that he was interested in exploring what LVGEA had to offer. But he said it was important to keep the Citywide contract in place while that exploration was made.
In the end, Wursten made a motion to approve an annual contract with Citywide Consultants. But the motion was rejected in a 2-3 vote with Wursten and Boger voting in favor. Gault, Ramaker and Dutkowski were opposed.
In final public comment, a visibly frustrated Law came forward asking what would become of the pending Project Washboard. “What is going to happen to the $181 million project we have in escrow right now?” he asked. “Do we just hand that over to someone at the city?”
“Personally, I think we keep it going,” said Gault.
“You want me to just keep doing it for free?” Law asked. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Anderson clarified that the existing contract with Law was not set to expire until September. “The current contract would continue until it expires,” Anderson said. “And there is always opportunities to get another agreement or continue discussion. But it would have to come up on another agenda.”
In an interview after the meeting, Gault clarified that he had had no intention of cancelling the Citywide contract immediately. Rather he just wanted to open the field to explore more options for the city.
“I’ve had conversations with Cody and Colton and they are doing some good things, especially with Project Washboard,” Gault said. “That project is on the verge of announcing. So for us to mess that up at this point would be a major loss.”
Gault added that he wanted to proceed with asking the LVGEA to submit a proposal to the city. “And of course, Cody could do the same thing,” he said. “I would think that this would be great for the city to have multiple options to take a look at.”