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Agencies battle over taxpayer-funded economic development project

Collier County's newest accelerator project opened in late March.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 6, 2018
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Stefania Pifferi. Ahmed El, culinary program manager, and Ruth Fehr, business development manager of the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee.
Stefania Pifferi. Ahmed El, culinary program manager, and Ruth Fehr, business development manager of the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee.
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A blistering public fight over how one government department used money for economic development has ensued between two high-ranking Collier County officials: Clerk of the Circuit Court Dwight Brock and County Manager Leo Ochs.

Brock’s office, in an audit released March 21, shredded the Collier County Business and Economic Division (BED) and a nonprofit it hired, Economic Incubators Inc. (EII). The division, under approvals from Collier County commissioners, hired EII to oversee the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee, in eastern Collier County. The goal of the project: nurture upstart food businesses, from providing networking and marketing assistance to use of offices and equipment, in an underserved part of Southwest Florida.

Economic Incubators Inc. also operates The Naples Accelerator, which runs on a similar model, but not in a shared kitchen for food businesses. “We see an entire food hub coming out of Immokalee,” Economic Incubators President and CEO Marshall Goodman told the Business Observer in an interview before the audit was published. “This is part of that ultimate development.”

The clerk’s audit, alleging “misrepresentations, general malfeasance and possible fraud,” tells a much different story. (Goodman and Ochs, in a lengthy written response to the audit, deny nearly every allegation.)  

Marshall Goodman
Marshall Goodman

“The Clerk found that EII knowingly submitted false information to a grantor agency, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity,” states the audit. “In addition, the clerk has identified instances where EII and BED have made numerous misrepresentations to Grantor Agencies, (Collier County commissioners) and the taxpayers. EII’s seemingly deceptive practices and failure to manage the accelerator projects gives the Clerk great concern. So much so, that the Clerk recommends (commissioners) evaluate its options regarding the FY2018 Agreement with EII, and take whatever actions it deems necessary.”

Leo Ochs
Leo Ochs

Other alleged issues the clerk’s office discovered in the audit include:

• To date over $5 million has been spent for which the project has generated 19 validated jobs (3 of which are EII staff) with an additional $2.6 million projected by EII staff through 2021, totaling more than $7.6 million in taxpayer support;

• More than $1 million spent on payments to EII’s three personnel without quantifiable results;

• Over $10 million in grant funds identified as a future need for the “successful” completion of the accelerator projects.

“Contrary to the 2015 assertion of self-sustainability within two years,” the audit adds, “EII continues to fall short of revenue projections and continues to exponentially increase reliance on taxpayer funding.”

The Florida Culinary Accelerator opened March 28, even with the audit lingering over it. Ochs, in his response to the audit, says county management, EII and its board “have serious concerns with the largely unbalanced and inaccurate internal audit document.”

Ochs didn’t return a call seeking comment beyond the written response.

“Beginning with its meandering, ever expanding and seemingly endless scope, to the repeated use of inflammatory language, attempted character assassination, unsupported and erroneous findings and conclusions, the clerk’s internal audit attempts to unfairly characterize the operation of the business accelerator as poorly managed and unsustainable,” states the response. “In fact, in a relatively short period of time, the accelerator program has provided Collier County citizens with resources to build strong businesses and created a pathway for diversifying the local economy.”  


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