From the desk of Regina Lindsey (May 2017)

In 2009, I went to the Public Policy Advisory Council for International Economic Development Council, of which I currently serve as chair. We have three responsibilities. First, we craft the organization’s federal agenda, which outlines issues that impact economic development organizations across the country.

Secondly, we plan and execute the Federal Forum conference. This conference occurs each Spring and is, hopefully, an opportunity to hear from top level administrative officials in the president’s administration. Finally, we have historically hosted a White House economic development forum in the summer.

Federal Forum has just concluded, and it was the first look at where this new administration is headed regarding economic development. There has been mixed feelings in the industry in regards to news coming from Washington. While this area will certainly benefit from President Donald Trump’s views on regulations and transportation, other news was more disconcerting.

The main area of concern has been over the future of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) through Housing and Urban Development (HUD), funding for Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) and International Trade Administration (ITA), which houses SelectUSA, trade agreements, and EX-IM Bank. With these concerns, we were able to hear from many officials within these agencies, reporting on their charges and work thus far.

Secretary of HUD Dr. Ben Carson was our first senior level speaker, and he spoke passionately about his desire to make education accessible to more people, allowing for upward mobility among our under/un-employed. Under President Trump’s budget, the CDBG program would be defunded. However, Carson indicated that a new program might emerge, retaining promising, in the administration’s view, aspects of the CDBG program.

We also heard from congressional members that the program has too broad of support for it to completely dissolve. For local context, the City of Beaumont has received CDBG funding for more than 35 years and has addressed a number of infrastructure related projects and blight with approximately $120 million.

The Keynote Speaker at lunch was Secretary Wilbur Ross of the Department of Commerce. At our public policy committee meeting, the question was asked if anyone had ever heard the secretary make any remarks on EDA or ITA. No one could say they had. So, we were all looking forward to hearing his remarks. There were two things in particular that were met with approval.

First, Fred Volcansek was introduced as the new executive director for SelectUSA. I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Volcasek, sitting with him at lunch, and he is eager to see the agency thrive. In addition to his enthusiasm, he was a wealth of experience in economic development and international trade having worked at both Department of Commerce and International Trade Agency in the past. I thought this was very excellent since SelectUSA is not institutionalized and could, easily go away. In reality, SelectUSA is one of the most accessible and broadly used agencies for economic developers. This is the entity that assists communities in attracting business from other countries.

Secondly, it was announced that two nominations to EX-IM Bank, which if confirmed by the Senate, would finally give the board enough members for a quorum. This news is mixed. It is a relief to think that the bank can resume full operation. However, one of the nominations is Spencer T. Bachus III, a former congressman and staunch critic of the bank. Secretary Ross went on to say streamlining processes between agencies is a priority. He pointed to infrastructure projects as an example and stated it takes 8-1/2 years to get permitting, answering to sixteen different federal agencies. He reported that the administration is looking at making permitting concurrent rather than consecutive and looking at ways in which agencies can share staff and resources to shorten the time frame.

To this end, while there was no mention at all about President Trump’s proposed defunding of EDA, a new office under EDA has been created.

Douglass Lynott, director of Economic Development Integration, was one of our speakers. He is charged with acting as a liaison to coordinate economic development funds across all agencies for economic development projects. The question that did not get answered was, “how do you coordinate funds when the agencies supposedly are not going to receive funds?”

The most disappointing part of the conference was there are still a lot of unanswered questions related to EDA and trade issues. EDA funds are important to this area as well. The Port of Port Arthur recently received $200,000 from EDA and turned it into a $4.2M project. Lamar University, Lamar State College-Port Arthur, and the Port of Beaumont have all benefited from EDA funds as well. We were very pleased with the number of administration officials that participated in the conference.