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EDP should react the right way to Diageo fallout

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

There are many ways economic development leaders and the general public can react to the loss of “Project Workhorse,” a multi-million-dollar industrial project from international distiller Diageo that considered locating in Boyle County before ultimately choosing nearby Marion County.

Members of the Economic Development Partnership must be careful not to react by turning off transparency or seeking new ways to operate in the shadows. Such a move would be harmful to whatever trust the EDP has earned from the public as it has expanded its transparency and communication efforts in recent years.

A discussion of the Diageo project at the EDP board meeting Wednesday took a turn away from addressing concerns of Boyle County officials and improving communication toward how the EDP could eliminate the possibility of future failed projects ever coming to light.

EDP Chair Ben Nelson sent a not-so-subtle message by pointing out he is requiring all EDP board members to re-sign non-disclosure agreements.

EDP board member Cindy Ellsworth said the fact that Boyle’s failed attempt to lure Diageo became public “gives us a black eye.”

Many board members discussed how businesses don’t want information about their plans out there for competitors to take advantage of, which is why EDP President Jody Lassiter is sometimes the only person in the entire county to know specific details of some projects.

The board was talking as if the revelations about Diageo were made public while the project was still viable. If that were the case, they would have some serious and legitimate concerns. But it absolutely was not the case.

The Advocate-Messenger’s story headlined “Field of dreams,” which revealed how the Industrial Foundation withdrew from consideration land that was a finalist for Diageo’s site, published on March 2.

The Industrial Foundation withdrew the land from consideration last fall. Diageo announced the final location and plans for its facilities in Marion County in mid-December, more than two and a half months before the Advocate’s story.

The EDP itself thought the Diageo project was dead and gone in October, when Nelson said the board needed to conduct a “post-mortem” on two economic development projects, one of which it turns out was Diageo. The EDP board entered a highly questionable closed session at that time, under an exception to open meetings law specifically for discussions of possible projects when public discussion “would jeopardize the siting retention, expansion or upgrading of the business.”

To argue that discussing a project which had already left Boyle County would somehow jeopardize the project coming to Boyle County is to tie yourself in logical knots. But that’s not the point.

Regardless of the appropriateness of how they talked about it, the fact is many on the EDP board have known about the Diageo situation since October, yet they are only now hashing things out for real. Honest conversations are finally occurring because of the public’s awareness of what happened. That’s the power of transparency.

Now that these constructive conversations are happening, the EDP has a choice: It can turn the loss into something that makes it stronger and more cooperative going forward. And it can build further public trust and understanding of its goals at the same time. Or it can shrink away from public accountability and try to operate with more secrecy out of fear of being held accountable again.

We get that public accountability can be uncomfortable. But it’s also what our leaders signed up for when they joined a public-private partnership and took on their shoulders the responsibility for the entire community’s economic development efforts.

As Nelson told board members Wednesday, “a private-public partnership is a lot harder to do than one of us doing it by ourselves. But the beauty of it is it keeps a check and balance. … It’s messy, but together we’re stronger.”

We hope the EDP chooses the stronger, more cooperative, more transparent path forward.