Jackson aldermen questioning Magnet fee

Friday, January 4, 2008

On Monday, Jackson aldermen intend to learn just how an industrial recruiter spends the city's $24,269 annual payment.

Mitch Robinson, executive director of Cape Girardeau Area Magnet, is scheduled to appear at the board of aldermen's study session. He has not reported to the board for more than a year.

On Dec. 17, the board tabled a decision to renew the city's annual contract with Magnet. The move surprised city administrator Jim Roach.

"Frankly, I didn't think it was controversial," he said. "I thought it was a ministerial act on our part and everyone was on board ... and that wasn't the case."

Alderman Mark Dambach, elected to represent Ward 3 in May, said he had several questions.

"I'd like to know what he does and how the money is being spent," Dambach said. Robinson was not at the Dec. 17 meeting to answer them.

Other aldermen wondered why Robinson wasn't making regular quarterly reports.

Dambach said $24,269 is "a lot of money. It's not mine to give away."

Robinson, who made quarterly presentations to the Cape Girardeau City Council in 2007, said he attended some of Jackson's meetings and "had many informal conversations" with some city officials, including Roach and Mayor Barbara Lohr. Roach confirmed that he and Robinson had communicated regularly, but there wasn't any news to pass along. He pointed out that much of Robinson's work with private businesses is confidential.

"Some of what they do, they don't want to disclose and have on the front page of the newspaper," Roach said. "We're trying to figure out how to address those issues. How do we get quarterly reports and still protect the confidentiality?"

Magnet acts as a go-between for Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Scott City as well as Cape Girardeau County and businesses interested in expanding or relocating to the region.

The need for confidentiality does hamper his ability to report progress, he said. Robinson often does not know the names of companies because they are represented by state agencies, real estate agents or other intermediaries, he said. When he does know the company involved, he uses a code name, even when talking to his board of directors, which includes Lohr.

"It's been my policy for over 15 years," he said. "That's how we handle projects, because people like to talk."

Loose talk can jeopardize a possible business deal, especially "if they were going to be relocating an operation. That would upset existing work force or give information to competitors that they're looking into another area," he said. "In the investment world, the companies control the process."

Roach said what's become clear since the aldermen's Dec. 17 meeting is, even if there is no economic development news to report, the board needs to hear "'what are you doing to generate something?' That seems like a fair question."

Lohr credits Magnet with bringing Signature Packaging to Jackson as well as aiding expansions by Rubbermaid, Procter & Gamble and American Railcar Industries.

"In these economic times, I think they're doing the very best job they can," she said.

Robinson said he'll make suggestions for improving communications at the board's study session at 8:15 p.m. Monday. The study session follows the regular meeting, at 7:30 p.m. Monday, at city hall, 101 Court St. in Jackson.

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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