Brent Kettler’s résumé includes client and account management positions with large employers such as Gartner Inc. and Allen Systems Group, as well as with Lee County’s economic development office. Now he plans to use “big data” and other strategies to encourage growth in Hendry County as its director of economic development. He grew up in Massillon, Ohio (population just over 32,000), graduated from Miami University of Ohio in 2001 and moved to Southwest Florida. Kettler, who started his post with the Hendry EDC in January, chatted about his hopes for the county, which has the state’s highest unemployment rate (7.3 percent in March 2016).
What made you interested in this position? I had a meeting in late 2015 in Glades County and I had to drive through Hendry County to get there. I had driven through Hendry before but hadn’t stopped, and I found that LaBelle was almost an exact replica of my hometown. Ironically, a few weeks later I saw the [job] posting. I started to look at the numbers and pay attention to the data. It’s a smaller community that ranks very low in a lot of key economic indicator categories [such as unemployment and wages, with more than 90 percent of residents making less than $28,000 annually]. Which to me means, here’s this beautiful place in Florida that reminds me of my hometown and there’s room for growth. Currently 61 percent of our workforce resides outside of Hendry County. We’d really like to flip that.
How does one of your accomplishments at the Lee EDO relate to your new role? Economic development is shifting toward data [he has used tools such as GIS Planning SizeUp, a small business benchmarking tool, and ESRI, a mapping tool]. I did work with some chambers and it was amazing how the word got out and how many businesses this was able to touch. The backbone of Southwest Florida really is small business. I moved from Lee County, which has about 660,000 residents, to Hendry County, which has only about 37,000. I’m using what was used in Lee County with the small businesses here.
What are Hendry’s challenges? I’m a big believer in vocational and technical training. There are hard-skill type certifications that people can complete in less than a year with virtually no debt. There are no vocational schools in Hendry County. Our short-term initiative is to put a partner county vo-tech program in the dedicated Hendry County facility, hopefully in the 2016 or 2017 school year. The long-term goal would be a dedicated Hendry County vocational school [40 percent of its population has less than a high school diploma].
How are you trying to increase or improve incentives for businesses? The core economic development incentive offered is the tax abatement [for expanding and relocating businesses]. But what I’m really focused on is nontraditional incentives. I think there’s a significant amount of risk involved in offering cash to businesses. We’ve got the regional training center in Glades. That’s the type of incentive we want to offer—access to training for a company’s workforce.