Future promising for economic development alliance
“I hope (the alliance) is a bigger and stronger organization in six months or a year …” said Kim Howarth, an Elkhorn attorney and president of the development alliance board. “If we continue to do what we’ve done in past, then we’ll be bigger and stronger. We’ll have a lot more members and heck of a lot more responsibility.”
Fred Burkhardt, who has served as executive vice president of the alliance since it was formed in 2005, recently announced he is leaving for a job as president of the Chamber of Commerce in Logan County, Ohio.
The job is a good career opportunity and will put him closer to family, Burkhardt said. His last day at the alliance is Thursday, April 22, he said.
The development alliance board plans to find a new executive director, Howarth said. The board on Thursday appointed Michael Van Den Bosch, the group’s director of business development, as the interim executive vice president, Howarth said. He will serve until a new director is hired, he said.
The alliance works to foster economic growth in the county. It also administers a $500,000 revolving loan fund for small businesses or new businesses and manages a $685,000 training grant for aspiring entrepreneurs.
The alliance receives funding from the county as well as money from membership fees and payments for services from a number of municipalities and other organizations.
Howarth said Burkhardt, the only person to ever serve as executive director of the alliance, played a significant role in shaping the agency.
“He really has made the organization what it is today—good, better or otherwise,” he said.
But some on the Walworth County Board have questioned the effectiveness and oversight of the alliance, particularly in light of Burkhardt’s personal financial problems, which stem from the failure of his Delavan restaurant, the Heritage House.
County board Supervisor Dan Kilkenny in January urged the county board to seek an audit or financial review of the alliance. He wrote in a letter that he was not suggesting anything was wrong with the group’s finances, but he felt an audit would be prudent given the circumstances.
“My understanding was the organization had gone through a lot of money and was operating in a deficit,” he told the Gazette this week. “We wanted to know how that happened and why. (The county) funds the alliance, so it’s something we needed to look at.”
Kilkenny wrote that the county board’s lack of oversight and its unwillingness to judge the alliance and its officials objectively would cause embarrassment to the county board. The county board decided against considering the subject.
County funding for the alliance has dropped from $100,000 to $50,000 over the last few years, but Howarth hopes county funding continues.
Kilkenny believes the alliance should be entirely privately funded.
“I don’t think that taxing people to filter money through an organization that has private members and picks what it supports and promotes is appropriate,” he said. “I don’t think (the alliance) is likely to be more efficient with money than private business or the taxpayers who are forced to contribute.”
Burkhardt said no matter what happens after he leaves, the alliance has a lot of work to do. He said it must focus on a concept called “economic gardening,” or helping businesses in the county grow and flourish. He said the group also must look at fostering and expanding its relationships with the tourism and hospitality, building and construction and agriculture industries in the county.
“The current economy really isn’t helping with a clear direction,” he said, “but there are opportunities here.”