This article was originally published in Clay Today.

By Nick Blank

JACKSONVILLE – Officials at the JAXUSA Partnership Regional Economic Development Forum brought the public and private sector together to discuss how Duval County and its six surrounding counties can handle an incoming burst of economic growth.

Clay County is a member of JAXUSA Partnership, the economic development arm of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. Avalanche Consulting, an Austin, Texas-based economic growth consulting firm, prepared the report outlining a five-year plan on how to handle the growth.

The goals Avalanche Consulting’s Amy Holloway presented to about 100 people at the University of North Florida stuck to four key points – developing and attracting talent, preparing for economic growth, building a brand and collaborating between industries.

“How does Northeast Florida make itself attractive to outside talent?” Holloway asked. “This is just the beginning. We need to energize and intensify these activities even more.”

Holloway said Jacksonville should review applying smart infrastructure, such as Atlanta’s North Avenue Corridor and Chicago’s data portal. In addition to adding a diverse pool of jobs, she said Northeast Florida should focus on marketing Jacksonville and the area’s water resources, and nearby counties would benefit.

Presenters mentioned Keystone Heights’ abundance of water. Keystone Heights City Manager Scott Kornegay said he was enthused about the ideas from the discussion.

“The most exciting part is knowing that it’s a regional effort and Keystone Heights is positioned with a valuable and contributing member to the region,” Kornegay said. “Economic growth for the region can’t do anything but help us.”

The report said the region added 100,000 jobs since 2012 and saw a 10 percent increase in bachelor’s degree and associate degree holders. However, Holloway cited two major challenges to growth in the region – housing and transportation.

“There is a massive amount of commuting in this region,” Holloway said. “Every county except Duval has about 60 percent of its residents working in another county.”

Elevate Northeast Florida is an organization working toward economic development in the region and a sponsor of the event. Elevate Northeast Florida co-Chair Darnell Smith referred to Duval’s surrounding counties as family members and said it wasn’t just about Jacksonville.

“We all have to win and experience economic growth,” Smith said.

Chereese Stewart, Clay County govenrment’s director of Economic and Development Services, said the meeting helped her identify key areas for the county to improve.

“We know one of our biggest issues is workforce and education and we’ve got to find ways to do those better,” Stewart said. “We also know Clay County citizens have to go out of the county to work every day and we’ve got to try to fix that. Hopefully this is a good working group to do that.”

State Rep. Bobby Payne(R-Palatka), whose district includes the southern half of Clay County, as well as Putnam and Bradford counties, said his main takeaway from the summit led him to more questions, such as closing the skills gap and improving infrastructure in rural areas.

“We’ve heard a lot of great discussion about innovation, but we’re still working on getting broadband in some of the areas in rural districts,” Payne said. “For me, it was a learning process.”

The report recommended members form a committee to discuss the initiatives, meet quarterly and provide an annual progress report.