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Saturday October 25th 2014

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An Offer They Can’t Refuse

Navy Fed’s Job Bonanza and the Future of 4-H in Escambia County
By Jeremy Morrison

Kids in the local 4-H program have been hearing a lot about making adult decisions, but they’re old enough to know that, ultimately, it’s the adults who will be making this big decision.

“They think that we don’t know what we’re doing,” sighed Patra Miller.

Stepping out of a north county hog pen, the 13-year-old leaned up against a pickup truck and settled into a Sunday afternoon conversation about the future of 4-H in Escambia County.

“I see myself as saying ‘No,’” Miller said. “I don’t want to sell.”

Sometime soon, along with the rest of the local youth involved in 4-H, Miller will be making a big decision; probably the biggest decision ever made by the group. But will it even matter?

The 4-H clubs of Escambia County own a sprawling 240-acre swath of rural land. Their neighbor, Navy Federal Credit Union, is eyeing the land for an expansion. While the move stands to bring a slew of new jobs to the region, it could also alter the future of 4-H in the area.

The decision to sell the land rests with the 4-H Council, which is comprised of the members of the local 4-H clubs. Ranging in age from 8 to 18, these kids—in theory, at least—hold the future in their hands. If they agree to sell, then Navy Federal will flood the fields with gold coins from heaven. If they decline, then the area’s bleak, jobless future will be placed directly on their young shoulders.

“We know what kind of impact it’s going to have if it does happen,” said Devin Bell, the current teenage president of the 4-H Council, adding that the group is still trying to “get some things finalized, get some things cleared up.”

“We don’t have all the questions answered yet,” Bell said.

But would such a decision really be allowed to fall into the charge of children? Sure, until the grown-ups feel its time for them to step in. While the 4-H Council does vote on the land sale, the Escambia County Commission makes the ultimate decision.

“It would be very difficult for five county commissioners to not look very seriously at 3,000—averaging $40,000-a-year—jobs,” conceded Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson. “Do you know the impact? The economic impact?”

THE DEALERS, THE DEAL AND THE DEALT

The Langley Bell 4-H Center was donated to the organization in 1943. Over the years, pieces of the property have been sold off, with 240 acres remaining. Escambia County 4-H clubs own the property.

“These lands are a place to go on adventures,” said Whitney Fike.

Fike grew up in the 4-H organization. She served on the state executive board for four years and represented Florida at the National 4-H Congress in Atlanta.

“I would not be the person I am today without 4-H,” she said.

The Langley Bell property has a barn, mess hall, auditorium and cabins. More than 88 acres of the site are wetlands. Over the years, 4-H has raised livestock on the land, though that activity has become limited.

Fike spent a fair amount of time on the Langley Bell property during her 4-H years. The prospects of selling it have lit her up.

“… our County was always being told that we were so lucky to have a facility like Langley Bell 4-H Center. We were the only one in the state to have such a place – Langley Bell 4-H Center was well known statewide,” she recently blogged.

But Fike is quick to clarify.

“I understand the economic impact that Navy Federal has,” she said. “I’m not saying 4-H should not sell.”

What concerns Fike is the deal currently on the table. Melissa Helmick—an active 4-H volunteer with a daughter in the organization—is hung up on the same thing.

“If these kids say ‘Yes’ to the Navy Fed deal, they will never own land again,” Helmick said.

In exchange for its 240 acres, 4-H is being offered $3.6 million from Navy Federal and a new facility on 23 acres near the county Extension Office. The organization would have to pony up about $400,000 to finish out the facility, but 4-H would not own the building or the land. Escambia County would use their funds and retain title to the facility and the right to use it for other, non-4-H purposes.

“Those kids own 240 acres now,” said Phillip Boutwell, who has a daughter in the program. “If the deal goes through as it is now, the kids will own nothing.”

Commission Chairman Robertson likes the deal. He’s guessing 4-H can probably ride off the interest—projected to be around $200,000 a year—and throw the rest in the bank.

“I think it’s a fair swap because they’re going to put $3 million in an endowment,” the chairman said.

Robertson doesn’t like the term ‘endowment.’ He feels it might be confusing the kids.

“‘You’ve got a big pot of money now’—that would have been easier to understand than ‘endowment,’” he said.

In addition to chairing the Escambia County Commission, Robertson also sits on the 4-H Foundation, which oversees the organization’s finances. He said the foundation “approved” the Navy Fed deal.

“Which means that they think it’s a good deal, a good price,” Robertson said. “They put their blessing on it.”

Joe Vidak is vice president of the local 4-H Foundation. He doesn’t see it the same way.

“In the best interest of capitalism and Adam Smith, everybody is pursuing their own best interest,” Vidak said.

Vidak isn’t sure that the process has been kosher. He questions why the foundation, the county and the local Chamber of Commerce are so heavily involved in a land deal with a seemingly unwilling seller.

“It’s not my role to participate in the debate,” Vidak said. “I’m not sure everybody knows what their roles are exactly. We’ve never been here before.”

JOB JUNKIES

When Navy Federal Credit Union came to town more than a decade ago, they were a welcomed addition to the local business landscape. Today, the company is the full-blown “Jobs King,” with posters of itself plastering the walls down at the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Thus far, Navy Federal Credit Union is hanging with us,” said chamber CEO Jim Hizer.

Hizer’s a bit nervous sweating out the Langley Bell deal. There’s a lot at stake. Navy Federal has made a public commitment to direct its growth toward Escambia County.

Last year, Navy Federal Credit Union added 470 jobs locally. Debbie Calder, senior vice president of the local operations, expects the company to hire between 500 and 600 more people this year.

“You could look at that as a pretty good benchmark,” she said, predicting continued growth for the foreseeable future.

Those numbers would ring the bells of any chamber of commerce official. They tend to get local politicians salivating as well.

“You’re talking about serious jobs,” said Commissioner Robertson. “When you bring an industry in with 500 or 600 jobs you jump up and down—this is like bringing in several industries.”

Navy Federal’s current facilities reside on 65 acres neighboring the 4-H property. The company purchased the property from Escambia County. The land was originally part of Langley Bell 4-H property, which the county had purchased for economic development.

“We’re about ready to run out of room,” said Calder, of the company’s current facilities.

On one side of the company’s existing campus is property belonging to the U.S. Navy, and it’s not for sale. On the other side is the remaining 240 acres of the 4-H property.

“That really is our only option to expand this campus,” Calder said.

If the Langley Bell deal doesn’t go through, local officials are concerned that Navy Federal may uproot and take all those sweet jobs to some other lucky destination with more elbow room.

“It’s in the chamber’s best interest and the county’s best interest to find them the room that they need to expand here,” Hizer said.

THE DEAL (IN RETROSPECT)

The Pensacola chamber has been very instrumental in the Langley Bell conversation. The chamber initiated the process by relaying Navy Federal’s original offer in the spring of 2010. The then-Economic Development vice president for the chamber, Charles Wood, approached Escambia County Extension Services Director Pam Allen to inform her of the company’s interest.

“The first thing I did was to facilitate a meeting with Charles Wood and the Bell family,” Allen recalled. “I wanted them to come in early and hear what Charles was asking.”

Although the Bell family does not have any legal say in the matter, Allen believed it proper to contact the land’s original owner first. In early 2011, she received a letter from Navy Federal expressing its desire to purchase the land and “wanting to know how that might happen.” At that time, Allen brought the matter before the 4-H Foundation.

The Foundation determined that the original offer of $3.1 million, which is about the property’s appraised value, was too low. Navy Federal responded with the $3.6 million offer.

With the adults having hammered out the specifics, the deal was brought before the kids—the 4-H Council. The chamber even paid for an attorney, Margaret Stopp, to provide the kids with “unbiased” legal advice.

“She was retained by Pam Allen and the 4-H Foundation,” Hizer clarified. “I just want to be clear on that.”

Allen explained that the 4-H Foundation didn’t have a “pot of money sitting around” to pay for legal expenses. When she “put that out there,” the chamber was happy to help. If the sale goes through, then the Foundation will use some of that money to repay the chamber for the attorney.

“I don’t see a conflict of interest because I understand the legal system,” Allen said. “She’s not answering to them, she’s answering to us.”

With Stopp in attendance, Allen has hosted several meetings with the 4-H Council. Thus far, they have received a chilly response. To begin with, the 4-H’ers and their parents have cried foul over the process being steered by a chamber-supplied attorney.

“All of her comments—you can tell she is for the sale, too,” complained Boutwell.

After a recent meeting, the extension office announced that the 4-H Council would be voting on the Langley Bell issue on March 12. Allen now says that date has been taken off the calendar.

“I think initially the thought was ‘Let’s go ahead and get something settled,’” she explained. “But we’ve kinda pulled back on that a little bit.”

If a deal is not reached soon, it is feared that Navy Federal will get skittish and start looking for greener pastures. Calder would only say that the company would need to “regroup and figure out what Plan B is.”

With a deal promising the mother lode of jobs being stalled by a bunch of 4-H kids, the local business community is pretty close to freaking out. Hizer calls the circumstances “rather unusual.”

“We really need to figure this out,” he said.

NOT YOUR GRANPAPPY’S 4-H

If 4-H sells its property to Navy Federal and relocates to the land beside the extension center, the move could have ramifications beyond geography. Along with opening the door for decent paying jobs, the relocation could close the door on a chapter of 4-H’s history is Escambia County.

“It not only affects what’s going on right now, it not only affects the jobs,” said Julie Boutwell. “It also affects the future of 4-H.”

Some members of the 4-H community have expressed concern that losing such a girth of land—and downsizing to a much smaller parcel—could alter the character of the organization. They fear kids would not have the same opportunity to raise livestock or participate in other activities, such as practicing shooting, that the property has afforded.

“If we sell, we won’t have as much as we have now,” said Emily Boutwell, Julie and Phillip Boutwell’s 10-year-old daughter.

Emily is currently raising a hog. She’s just finished sloshing around its pen in a pair of rubber boots.

“I’ve rode one before,” she laughed.

“I sat on one,” adds nine-year-old Eva Miller.

Emily and Eva are in the Barrineau Park 4-H Club. Eva’s sister, Patra, is the club president—the two sisters will be casting their club’s votes when the 4-H Council decides the Langely Bell issue.

The Barrineau Park club is fortunate enough to have a hog pen on private land. The member’s parents say that restrictions placed on the Langley Bell land in recent years have made raising livestock on the property unworkable.

“I’m not a real fan of the director at the extension office,” said Phillip Boutwell. “And as far as I know, no one else is either.”

Boutwell, and other 4-H parents, contend that Allen has purposefully shifted 4-H’s focus from agriculture to technology. They feel she has made it difficult to raise animals at Langley Bell, and has actively sought to have the group’s stomping grounds relocated to the extension office.

Allen said that the property was not ideal for raising animals. The extension office director contended raising an animal should entail the “full experience,” and she felt the long-distance nature of tending to animals at Langley Bell did not accomplish that. She also noted that she felt the property had received decreased usage due to staffing issues—cutting the park’s caretaker to part-time—and changing interests among youth.

“It sounds like a good idea,” Allen said. “But it’s way too intense, and with the price of gas and the other things kids are interested in and, yes, we did change the policies to our livestock program.”

Allen said that only a fraction of 4-H’s attention was directed towards agricultural or livestock-based programs. Today’s kids, she argued, don’t have the same interests as a bulk of the organization’s membership once did.

“Where you find the interest is pretty much where you go with your resources,” she said.

When the extension offices tout its numbers, they are counting students who are participating in 4-H based programs in schools. The students are learning about nutrition, or sprucing up on their public speaking.

“4-H is so different today than it was 60 years ago,” Commissioner Robertson said, using Allen’s data to back up his argument. “It was mostly rural. Today, it’s as much urban as it is rural.”

Padra’s father—Brian Miller—is a teacher in Escambia County. He applauds 4-H’s school programs, but questions factoring the participants into the equation when it comes to determining the organization’s future character.

“Those students have no idea they’re being counted as a 4-H member,” he said.

While Allen maintains that 4-H has evolved, there are those that disagree. They contend that 4-H is still firmly rooted in agriculture.

“4-H is the same because its principals haven’t changed,” argued Phillip Boutwell. “Has it evolved with technology? Yes it has, but 4-H still does raise cattle, they still raise hogs, goats, sheep, rabbits, all of that stuff.”

Vidak, the 4-H Foundation vice president, feels that Allen’s shift of focus and the offer of a new facility near the extension office might not be guided with the 4-H core community’s best interest in mind. He wonders if this might be a shortcut to a new extension office.

“Everybody wants another nice place,” Vidak said. “You know, the extension needs better facilities, it’s just not in the budget right now.”

Allen disagrees.

“We house the 4-H program,” she said. “We are the 4-H program.”

She said the county and the local 4-H program have a “good relationship” and feels relocating the organization’s facility is a natural “continuation of that partnership.” The extension office director feels people are ignoring the evolving nature of 4-H and missing the point entirely when they focus on the acre-for-acre aspect of the deal being offered.

“I think people are caught up in this replication,” Allen said. “And if we’re trying to replicate 240 acres for 240 acres—I mean, why would we want to sell?”

THE BENEFACTOR’S BULLIES

In addition to raising hogs and demonstration crops, kids in 4-H are also taught to participate in society. They go on field trips to Tallahassee and visit the legislature and take courses in leadership.

“They’re taught to take a participatory role in their community, in government,” explained Vidak.

In this scenario, the 4-H community—the kids currently enrolled in local clubs—is seemingly being given a great deal of participatory power. And with that power has come a great deal of pressure.

“They’re being pulled seven different ways by a bunch of adults that all want to slant things their way,” Vidak said. “You know, it’s a shame, but it’s a great lesson on how government works.”

But while the 4-H Council is listed as the owners of the Langley Bell property, the Escambia County Commission is listed as the Board of Trustees, which takes up the issue of the Navy Federal sale after the council has weighed in.

“These young people have a say that’s binding,” said Robertson, before reconsidering his words. “Actually, their vote is not binding. It’s an advisory to the commissioners.”

The Commission doesn’t have to stick with the 4-H Council’s decision.

“They do not,” Robertson said. “But it’d be very nice for the board if the county commission and the council agree.”

Though he appears ready to part ways with the kids if they balk at the Navy Fed deal, the Chairman is holding out hope that the 4-H Council will do the mature thing.

“Who knows, kids are smarter than we think,” he said. “They may sit down and talk it over and realize it’s a benefit to them.”

The kids seem to be smart enough to have caught on to the fact that their role in the process is somewhat ornamental.

“None of us are for it,” said Andrew Waltrap, a 10-year-old 4-H member. “I think they’re gonna try to get us to say ‘Yes’ to it, but our decision doesn’t really matter.”

Over at the chamber, Hizer prefers to view the 4-H’ers as an overall organization. After all, it’s easy enough not to place much emphasis on the 4-H Council’s role.

“Oh, I think the Foundation is part of the 4-H leadership,” Hizer said, also including the extension office and the county commission in its role as board of trustees. “A majority of the 4-H leadership is comfortable with it—not everybody, but the vast majority of folks in this need to feel comfortable.”

Hizer—along with the county commission and the extension office—will continue to wait it out, as the 4-H Council mulls the decision. They’re hoping the kids will eventually sign off on the deal, thus avoiding the unseemly appearance an outright override by the county commission would have.

Navy Federal, meanwhile, has decided to sit on the sidelines.

“We’re just waiting to see what happens,” Calder said. “We’re not really in the mix.”

The executive said that the company is hoping for a “win-win-win” outcome that will benefit everyone involved. But Navy Fed will let other players do the heavy lifting toward that goal.

Commission Chairman Robertson sounded pretty confident such an outcome could be reached. With so much at stake, the adults aren’t about to allow Navy Fed to slip away.

“They’re relying on the county commission and the chamber, the local business leaders, to work with 4-H to make it a win-win,” Robertson said. “They don’t want to be the bad guys and take that hit. They can go somewhere else. We’re the ones that need the jobs.”

Dee Dee Waltrip, Andrew’s mom, feels that in their rush for jobs people have lost sight of the benefit that having a place like the Langley Bell property provides.

“It’s not that we don’t want Navy Federal to succeed, if they succeed we all succeed,” said Waltrip. “But if 4-H succeeds we all succeed, too.”