By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – Changes that may be coming to parish economic boards are creating tension for one organization in particular, something that Parish President Pat Brister said she did her best to diffuse at a Monday morning meeting.
A St. Tammany Parish study commissioned last year by the Northshore Community Foundation, dubbed the Northshore Visioning Project, created a task force that made various recommendations for the parish in looking at “where we want to be” in 20 years.
One of those recommendations pointed to the seven different organizations that affect parish economic development or business growth, noting there is a level of overlap in services by some. The report also cited pressure on business leaders to serve on many different boards, as well as the pressure to support different groups with their resources.
Brister said she was involved in the idea to create the Visioning Project after general discussions with business leaders and public officials in the parish raised the question about planning long term. After reviewing the project’s recommendations she created the Regional Partnership Board, made up of 10 committee members who began meeting to decide how to utilize the information from the report.
“The first thing we did was send a request to the seven organizations and asked for a budget, how they get their money, a copy of their bylaws and to tell us what they do with their money,” she said.
The seven organizations are the St. Tammany Parish Development District, St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation (STEDF), St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission, Northshore Business Council, Northshore Community Foundation, East St. Tammany Chamber and St. Tammany West Chamber.
Brister said that six of the seven groups immediately responded with the information, but the Tourist and Convention Commission did not. For that matter she said they “became defensive” as questions were asked about their operation.
On Monday, Brister and other members of the Regional Partnership Board attended a Tourist Commission meeting to discuss the situation, ending with what the parish president called “candid conversations, and in the end, a good meeting.”
Tourist Convention Board Chairman T.J. Smith, who coincidentally also accepted an appointment from Brister to the Regional Partnership Board, agreed that the meeting was “productive.”
Brister said she believes the recommendations in the Visioning Project are worth considering. To that end, she said she is involved in a bill going to the Louisiana Legislature this spring that would combine the Economic Development Foundation and the Parish Development District.
Otherwise, she said, “we are not coming after the money from the other groups.”
Nonetheless, she acknowledged that members of the Tourist Commission “took an affront as if we were after their money.”
Smith didn’t disagree that point, but is the only leader among the seven groups who is asking a lot of questions during the process.
“I believe that if there is room to make the recommendations in the report happen, then by all means we should,” he said. “Wherever it is applicable to implement things we will do that. But legislatively, according to our board’s creation, we can only do what our bylaws allow.”
Smith said that at the start of the Monday meeting his group submitted all requested budget information requested from the Partnership Board.
Brister said the board is still in the earliest stages of considering what might come from the Northshore Visioning Project report, but she agrees that several of the economic boards and organizations definitely “have a duplication of services they provide, which is taxing the resources they each need.” By consolidating some of the groups, or at least reviewing their operation, “there can be ways to save money, and especially reduce the burden the groups put on business leaders to serve on boards.”
The east and west Chamber groups already met last year to discuss the idea of forming one St. Tammany Chamber. In the end, they decided against it, but Brister said they have found ways to work together more than they did in the past and are saving money and resources by helping each other in any way they can.
“They already realized they only needed one IT person so by attrition they are going to reduce that number,” Brister said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to always review public boards and make certain they are performing as efficiently as possible.”
The parish president also said she sees a similar situation with non-profit groups in the parish, with over 100 charity groups in St. Tammany. Most are seeking business leaders to serve on their board of directors and seeking businesses to support them financially.
Brister said that when the Partnership Board sent out the first request to the seven groups for information “six of them complied right away, but “we only got partial information from the Tourist Commission. We sent out a second request and it was still incomplete.”
Brister said one other important reason to consolidate some of the many parish economic groups is because they have had out-of-town corporations tell them they didn’t know who to call to get information.