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Company named; outcome uncertain

In a move that may result in the loss of current and future jobs for county residents, Mayor Dan Eldridge bowed to pressure from members of the county commission, the media and the general public last week and revealed documents naming Dentsply Tulsa Dental Specs as the company considering a cash deal to relocate to Oklahoma.
During a called meeting with local media on Feb. 4, Eldridge provided copies of correspondence among the parties involved in Project X, which include emails as far back as October 2014.
When some media members questioned why the information was not supplied in response to earlier public records requests, Eldridge said an opinion from County Attorney Tom Seeley did not judge the information now in-hand as meeting the terms of the written requests.
“One of the things that I think has been misunderstood is the Washington County Economic Development Council has been designated as the organization to facilitate development opportunities,” he continued.
As the county’s official representative, the mission of the WCEDC is “to enhance job growth and increase the tax base of Washington County by engaging the community and business leaders through nurturing existing businesses and actively recruiting new industries and commerce.”
The WCEDC staff is often the first to know if a company is considering an expansion or worse, a move to another area. They then consider whether there are options to keep the jobs and dollars from the local company in the local economy, such as the effort that retained NN, Inc. less than a year ago.
During the time the tax incentives were considered and approved, the business was referred to in local media as “the unnamed company,” and the name was not released to the public until the celebratory press conference.
A much different response was received when the county attempted to honor the WCEDC’s confidentiality agreement regarding a proposal to Dentsply, which is ready to expand but weighing an offer to relocate to Oklahoma. Currently at 608 Rolling Hills Drive in Johnson City, Dentsply is a multinational firm offering a variety of endodontic products.
Contingent on the execution of the agreement with Dentsply, commissioners voted during their January meeting to approve a $1 million allocation from the county’s General Fund that would allow the Industrial Development Board to purchase the building occupied by the company.
In return, Dentsply would commit to a 15-year lease arrangement, a capital investment of $16-20 million and the creation of 25-75 new production jobs.
The telephone call 30 minutes before the media meeting was Eldridge’s first conversation with site consultant John Austin, who requested another 24 hours before the company’s name was released.
“He expressed concern over where they are in the process, and specifically asked, ‘Can you give us any more time at all?’” Eldridge told members of the media. “He said they were going through the management chain, and to withhold the name for a few hours could make a difference.”
“Obviously we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain confidentiality, and part of not revealing the name is to eliminate any conflict of interest,” he added, requesting one more day despite full disclosure of the name and competing state revealed in the provided information.
Maintaining the credibility of Washington County is another reason to adhere to the requested confidentiality agreement, according to Eldridge. “What kind of economic development environment would we offer (otherwise)?”
Eldridge said all of the financial information necessary to making a good business decision for the taxpayers was shared, in addition to identifying the company as one that has operated in Washington County for more than 20 years, but cautioned disclosing the name adds subjectivity to the decision.
“If the county commissioners had known, they may have been influenced if they had a relationship with someone working there,” he said. “We also could have had a room full of employees saying, ‘save our jobs.’”
This demand for confidential information has put the county in a position where leaders can’t allow themselves to be compromised, according to Eldridge. “We can’t be facing this situation again, but I don’t know how you can do economic development when the company that is creating the jobs is driving the process,” he said.
The 24-hour embargo was not upheld by one media member, though Eldridge said he was not surprised. “I think that outlet had an agenda last week contrary to the best interest of Washington County.”
Whether it will make a difference in the final decision remains to be seen. Austin told Eldridge the company is continuing to evaluate the opportunity, but offered no timeline to expect a decision.
The reaction from the public and a minority number of commissioners does not bode well for future economic development endeavors.
“I’m very concerned about the message this sends,” Eldridge said in a later interview. “In this community, we have told the world that understanding every aspect of a deal is not enough.
“We have said that a company not willing to forego the interests of its employees and reveal its business strategy is not welcome in Washington County.”
Maintaining that position will take the county out of economic development, warned Eldridge.
“We have to figure out a way to move beyond the ridiculous situation we have put ourselves in because we have to be successful in economic development,” he said.
“With all this county has going for it, I can’t believe this is where we’ve ended up. There is no question we have our work cut out for us if we want to bring jobs to Washington County.”