Sunday, March 25, 2018

Incubators That Don't Incubate

When criticism comes, the natural inclination is to circle the wagons. Obfuscate and deny. That's what Collier County officials did when Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock blasted Economic Incubators, the parent organization of the county's breeding grounds for new businesses.

Brock's financial audit alleged mismanagement, data falsified in order to receive payments and possible fraud. According to the Naples Daily News, County Manager Leo Ochs took exception to Brock's report, calling it "meandering" and with "unsupported and erroneous findings." Marshall Goodman, CEO of Economic Incubators, was quoted as saying, "It makes unsubstantiated accusations using inflammatory language."

Inflammatory language? That's the hallmark of the clerk, who is often bombastic. My experience with Brock has been that, while bombastic, he is also very thorough. Where there's smoke, he usually finds the fire. The county has few watchdogs. Brock is one of those few. Don't discount his findings just yet.

I visited the Naples Accelerator, one of Economic Incubator's operations, several years ago and was surprised to find a warehouse-like space with rooms and offices around the perimeter. The rooms contained desks, computers and an occasional worktable. And lots of telephones, presumably to keep in touch with backers or home offices. At the time, many of the incubating businesses were foreign-based.

I somehow expected to see product prototypes, marketing designs, even scale-up units. While all of the offices had titles on the doors, only about half had people in them. Maybe that's not unusual for incubators. I'm certainly no expert.

But here's the thing. To my knowledge, Naples Accelerator hasn't delivered a single new business since opening four years ago. Forget about charges of shoddy accounting. The incubator hasn't incubated anything! Don't focus on Brock's audit. Focus on whether taxpayer money is being wisely spent. Where are the new businesses?

Now the pump primers will say four years isn't enough. It takes much longer to cough out a new business. And that may be. But is anything showing promise? How about benchmarks, indicators of progress, checkpoints toward a goal, something? So far the public has seen none of that. Instead, the Naples Accelerator looks like a pit into which money is poured every year, nothing more. (The Florida Culinary Accelerator, which just opened in Immokalee, may do better. Let's hope so.)

We have heard the litany that for Collier County to grow and prosper our business base must diversify beyond the three-legged stool of agriculture, construction and tourism. The Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce made a run at that some years ago with an ambitious project called Opportunity Naples. Unfortunately it went nowhere. So we are now left with incubators, accelerators and something called the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. Collier County is growing and prospering without local government doing a thing. We win awards every year for being a desirable place in which to live, a healthful community with amazing culture and recreation and restaurants and clean water and air. And people continue to flock here, straining our infrastructure. We're not dependent on diversity. The three-legged stool seems to be doing just fine.

So don't lose any sleep over Brock's report or the county's denial. We can afford a few incubators. Their ineffectiveness is probably no worse than that of other government agencies.

The bottom line? Enjoy living here. A little bombast and inflammatory language just spices things up.

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