The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has directed County staff to develop criteria that will restrict the use of the County’s Economic Opportunity Fund (EOF) to projects that qualify for
state matching funds
. That means a group proposing a local food hub will likely not receive money from the EOF to support their project.
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The proposal from C&G Associates requests $80,000 from the fund to support the creation of a local food distribution hub in Ivy. Customers of the hub would include the Jefferson Area Board for Aging and the Darden School for Business Administration.
The group first presented its idea to the Board at their day meeting on January
Seven people spoke out in favor of the project during the Board’s public comment section. City resident John Alexander said the small allocation of County funds would allow farmers to leverage their products to reach larger customers. Lisa Reader said the County’s investment would pave the way for additional funds from the private sector. White Hall resident Elizabeth Birdsall said the project would support local farmers and the environment by making it easier for County residents to find local food products.
However, two people spoke out against the project. Kathy Rash of the group Forever Albemarle said that while her group thought the idea of a local food hub was a good one, they could not support the use of taxpayer dollars to fund it. County farmer Keith McKenna said if there were truly a demand for local food, the private sector would be providing it.
When it came time for the Board to discuss the use of the EOF, County Business Development Facilitator Susan Stimart described how the criteria for the EOF have changed since the Board’s work session on the matter in January. The $250,000 fund was created in
and the Board asked for criteria to govern its usage in October 2008.
To even be considered, Stimart said applicants would need to provide financial documents, business plans, as well as documentation of the applicant’s qualifications. Applications would be evaluated according to a ranking system with 5 categories.
(Rivanna) said he wanted the purpose statement of the fund to reflect the County’s wish to attract new investment into the community that would translate into more tax revenue. He said the guidelines as amended made the fund seem too much like a venture capital fund. A phrase addressing his concern was added to the statement of purpose.
(Samuel Miller) said while she wanted to encourage the creation of high-wage jobs, those positions can sometimes attract non-County residents who then do not choose to move to Albemarle.
(Jack Jouett) said he was also opposed to using the fund as a pool to seed entrepreneurs.
“This was originally created, I think, [so] that we would have some money available to match government [programs] such as the Virginia Opportunity Fund, where they require a local match,” Rooker said. “It wasn’t set up to entertain high-tech companies coming here.”
After discussing the global criteria, Boyd asked about the six applications that have been received by the County so far. He wanted to know if staff would vet the applications, or if a committee made up of staff and citizens would have that duty.
Rooker said applications should be thoroughly vetted through strict criteria until they come before the Board. At that point, the Board would get the chance to weigh in an applicant’s significance to the County.
Rooker also questioned whether the $250,000 fund would even be replenished, and wondered if the County really should create a bureaucratic system of granting seed money. Boyd agreed with Rooker’s comments.
“As the person who proposed this originally, it was really a small amount of money… and the idea was that if we had some proposals that came from the Virginia Economic Development Opportunity Fund, and they always looked for matching funds, and we had no source to give them,” Boyd said.
Rooker said he did not oppose the criteria, but lamented that the County seemed to be moving away from using the fund as Boyd said it was intended. He said that the food hub application should be vetted in the same process as the other five applications received so far. Boyd recommended taking a step back before proceeding with appropriating any money.
FOOD HUB PROPONENTS ‘DISAPPOINTED’ BY BOARD
But Ann Mallek said she felt bad for those from the food hub because they have been the guinea pigs by which the economic opportunity fund concept was being developed.
Thomas asked how the food hub proposal would be evaluated, given that the criteria had not been adopted yet. County Executive Robert Tucker said it had been planned that the Board consider the food hub application after adopting the criteria.
“But now I’m hearing maybe you might want to take a step back,” Tucker said.
Thomas said she was concerned that by relying on the state agency to vet the application, the Board would lose a chance to fund something that originated from local groups. Rooker asked where the Board would draw the line.
“We’ve got a very small amount of money, and are we going to really start looking at every idea that germinates from the community as something we should put money into?” Rooker asked.
Deputy County Executive Tom Foley suggested that the Board could take up the local food hub when it next considers the County’s plan for the rural areas. He suggested the EOF could be further revised to restrict it to state matching funds.
Thomas said the six proposals were being submitted in part because the Board has not been able to pay for the actions called for in Comprehensive Plan.
“We had a strategy for the rural area, we had a position already in our budget, we never carried through with that, we don’t have anyone in that position, and we’ve done very little in what we said we were going to do in our agricultural strategy,” Thomas said. “And now we have some real [people]who thought they saw a pot of money just sitting there that wasn’t being spent and I don’t blame them for thinking that might be a way to fund their proposals.”
Rooker said that the farming community was not unified behind the food hub proposal, pointing out the opposition from the Farm Bureau and Forever Albemarle. In an interview after the vote, Farm Bureau President Carl Tinder told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the idea for a food hub was a good one, but that his group did not support the use of tax dollars to fund its creation.
Boyd sought to end the debate, and recommended accepting Foley’s recommendation to redefine the criteria.
“But I also think we need to identify that those people here with specific proposals that it looks like this fund is not going to be available for that use,” Boyd said. Rooker agreed. But Thomas said the food hub proposal meets most of the criteria laid out by Stimart. Rooker said it would be hard to draw the line on all the good ideas that might come out of the community.
(Rio) was not present at the meeting, Vice Chair Mallek held the gavel and allowed food hub representative Kate Collier to approach the Board to make one last pitch for the funding. Collier said she was confused and disappointed, because the Board had urged her to come back with a business plan.
“We were encouraged to come back, and now it sounds like you are deciding [our proposal] doesn’t fit in that system,” Collier said. “We clearly believe that we fit within the guidelines.”
Rooker said the Board had not yet adopted the guidelines.
“One of the problems is that your proposal has come to us before we’ve put in the overlay of criteria,” Rooker said.
Mallek told Collier that she was sorry that the Board had “trapped” the food hub proposal by agreeing to hear it in January before criteria were adopted.
Collier said the food hub proposal should be seen as an investment in the County’s agricultural infrastructure. After Rooker tried to explain how the private sector could better play that role, Collier expressed frustration about being misled.
“Mr. Boyd sent the television station to us after we had this meeting last time to broadcast this economic opportunity fund was available and that they had not very many applicants,” Collier said.
Boyd said that last time, the Board directed Collier to get together with a competing proposal to see if the two could be combined so the local government did not have to make a value judgment over which one was more worthy of funding. The two groups decided not to combine. Collier said local governments often have to pick one group over another for funding. Mallek said that’s where the difficulty with this proposal lay.
“This is a new experience for us,” Mallek said. “In all the years I’ve been watching from the audience [I have not] seen any kind of competition for funds like this. That’s the root of our misery here.”
Staff said they had enough direction to come back with revised criteria at a future Board meeting.
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