Weber County spends $456K on public relations, economic development contracts

Monday , December 04, 2017 - 5:00 AM3 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Weber County has spent more than $456,000 over the past three years on contracts for public relations services and economic development ventures.

More than $231,000 of the expense is being recorded this year alone, according to public records. Commissioners say the county needs to do a better job of telling community success stories and that the consultants are helping to craft a comprehensive economic development push to launch in 2018.

RELATED: Weber Commission divided over consultant, intergenerational poverty contract

RELATED: Weber County approves $94,500 contract for comprehensive PR services

Commissioners in June awarded a $94,500, one-year contract to the Dicio Group of Salt Lake City to provide public relations, marketing and communications services and consulting. Dicio’s PR plan emerged from a pool of seven responses to the county’s request for proposals.

In July, PGCC Strategies of Bountiful received a $100,000 off-budget, sole-source, no-bid contract for economic development services. Additional expenses are allowed upon approval by the county.

Commissioners in January authorized an extra payment of $7,500 to consultant Stuart Reid to finish work on an economic development report that was commissioned in 2015. That contract paid Reid $180,000 in 2015-16. Reid is a former state senator and did economic development work for Ogden City.

In 2016, another contractor, Michael Lindenmayer, was paid $45,000 to do groundwork seeking ways to combat intergenerational poverty.

Then, Domenica Watkins received a $29,250 contract for January through June 2017 to follow up on intergenerational poverty issues, which Commissioner James Ebert says are part of the economic development puzzle.

CONCERN ABOUT ‘ANOTHER STAB IN THE DARK’

Debate about some of the contracts has revealed a schism on the commission over whether the outside expenses can be justified with quantifiable results.

Commissioner Kerry Gibson voted against the PGCC contract. According to the July meeting minutes, Gibson objected that the contract lacked “more specific measurables and accountability.”

He wanted to pull back the contract for brainstorming with the county economic development director, Doug Larsen, about how to move forward without splintering efforts.

Gibson said the PGCC deal “may be another stab in the dark without having a real vision of where they want the county to be, which is not spelled out in this contract.”

But Ebert and Commissioner Jim Harvey voted to approve the contract. Harvey said in an interview Thursday that PGCC is compiling data that will power economic development projects.

In an interview Monday, Nov. 27, Ebert defended the contracting.

“We had a tremendous amount of headway to make to get to this point,” he said. “It’s not good to throw just a bunch of new staff at it.”

VALUE OF $187,500 STUDY IN 2015-16 QUESTIONED

Data from PGCC’s current survey of 6,800 businesses will provide answers, more than the Reid studies did, Harvey said.

“I did not perpetuate any new contract with Stuart Reid,” Harvey said. “I wanted to go a different direction on that. I wanted to go with something based on analytics and outcomes.

“Let’s find out what the businesses tell us,” he said. “I’m teachable. We will learn from the most recent and probably more accurate data we’ve got.”

But Ebert said components of Reid’s study still may be part of “a layered approach” that will constitute the economic development plan to be unveiled in early 2018. PGCC’s work leads that effort, he said.

Reid’s study focused on identifying areas ripe for economic development, Ebert said, giving two examples: improving internet connectivity and business support services in the Ogden Valley, and crafting a coalition to bring about a bus rapid transit system in Ogden.

“This is a process ... that is extremely intentional,” Ebert said. “We’re not just taking one economic view; we’re taking on three or four different strategies to accomplish this.”

HEAVY HITTERS FROM SALT LAKE CITY

PGCC’s principals, Abby Osborne and Michael Parker, are vice presidents of the Salt Lake Chamber. Ebert said they are positioned to provide a national and worldwide view of development potential for Weber County that’s not been available before.

Salt Lake Chamber executives moonlighting as consultants for a smaller county is more of an opportunity than a conflict of interest, Ebert said.

PGCC is “really becoming champions and cheerleaders for Weber County,” he said. The work also may lead to cooperation among outer-tier counties, including Weber, Davis, Box Elder and Tooele, he said.

Story continues below photo.

The county wants to strengthen the community by attracting and retaining population and workforce, Ebert said.

“We identified very early that with Ogden City and the county as a whole, there’s the old stereotype that we’re crime-ridden, run-down, backward. It’s either crime or farmers,” he said.

The plan will focus on developing the local workforce and promoting industry clustering, such as in aerospace, he said. It’s meant to be complementary to economic development by Ogden City and tourism promotion by the Ogden-Weber Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Referring to booming industry growth in Salt Lake and Utah counties, Ebert said, “We need to be realistic in what we are doing. It’s foolish for us to think we can create something out of nothing while next door we have a full tornado.”

At the same time, Weber County’s economic development office has been “woefully understaffed,” Ebert said, with a director and a clerical employee. The county’s former public relations representative, Holin Wilbanks, is now also working on economic development, a move that coincided with the new Dicio contract for PR.

‘BUDGETING SAUSAGE’ AND POLITICAL OVERTONES

Ebert acknowledged the Dicio and PGCC contracts required “budgeting sausage” that required dipping into the county general fund “to get both of those moving.”

In championing the Dicio contract, Harvey said, “We have not done a very good job of telling our story.”

He said Dicio is helping to publicize local advances in parks and culture and highlighting the contributions of unsung heroes in the community, including philanthropists and charities. Dicio has produced promotional videos and improved the county’s activity on social media, work backed by analytics, he said.

The Dicio contract is flavored with objectives that call for extolling the three commissioners.

Dicio promised in the contract to “look for ways to highlight how each commissioner has cut costs and saved taxpayer money” and “highlight boards the commissioners serve on, the commissioners’ work at the Legislature and with the federal delegation, and positive interactions between commissioners” and notable people in the county.

Harvey said he wondered about “that particular wording” in the contract. The promotion called for is “not necessarily” about the elected commissioners; county employees’ achievements will be touted as well, he said.

In their contract proposal, Dicio’s two principals, Natalie Callahan and Sasha Clark, documented their past work for political party organizations and candidates, including on Davis County Commissioner Randy Elliott’s 2016 campaign.

“Natalie and Sasha were able to come in and create a communications strategy that ultimately won me the election,” Elliott said in a letter of recommendation to Harvey.

Harvey said he sat in on the RFP process for the PR contract, but the decision was made by a selection committee of other county personnel and “outside people.”

INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY EFFORTS MAY RESUME

Lindenmayer’s intergenerational poverty contract was not renewed in late 2016 after Gibson complained about a lack of tangible results.

But soon after, Ebert — wanting to continue momentum on that project — asked his assistant, Watkins, to give up her county job to become a contractor for six months. She then continued the poverty initiative.

Ebert said he chose the contract route for Watkins because there would have been opposition to assigning a county staff member to the task.

Yet another contract related to intergenerational poverty may be possible soon, Ebert said. He has been in discussions with a company working on an intergenerational poverty pilot project.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

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