After a rocky year, the Beacon Council looks for public goodwill and private dollars

In January, Miami-Dade commissioner Sally Heyman launched an effort for the Beacon Council, the county’s economic development agency, to spend $1 million of its budget year helping small businessses. The Beacon Council’s CEO at the time slammed the idea, calling it crippling for the agency, illegal and lacking “business sense.”

Ten months later, the Beacon Council has a new CEO, and Heyman no longer is pushing her proposal. Next week, she’ll headline a Beacon Council seminar on social marketing in her district that the tax-funded agency is promoting under the heading: “You’re invited to a Small Business Workshop with Commissioner Heyman.”

“They’re making great strides to reach out to small businesses,’’ said Heyman, who represents northeastern Miami-Dade. “I’m very optimistic.”

Heyman’s shift, from Beacon Council critic to guest seminar host, reflects the extended goodwill campaign underway by the non-profit as it tries to rebound from perhaps the most bruising stretch in its 28-year history. After ousting longtime CEO Frank Nero in March and still facing yearly financial losses, the Beacon Council hopes for a fresh start Thursday as a new chief executive and volunteer chairman set out to regain lost members and bolster the group’s political standing.

“Do I believe you can wipe the slate entirely clean? I do not,’’ said Sheldon Anderson, the Northern Trust executive who assumes the chairmanship of the Beacon Council at the group’s annual meeting Thursday at the Loews hotel in Miami Beach. “But the relationships all seem to be on the right footing for a new beginning.”

At the center of the Beacon Council’s fresh start stands Larry Williams, a soft-spoken former executive at Atlanta’s economic development agency who became Nero’s permanent replacement on Oct. 7. He’s pledging to put more effort into growing local companies, and to find ways for the Beacon Council to help new businesses form.

“What is it we can do to help grow that next generation of entrepreneurs here in Miami?” he said in a recent interview in the Beacon Council’s glass-walled conference room of Miami’s Brickell Avenue. “We need to look for a more contemporary approach to economic development.”

The non-profit, which received about $3.7 million this year from a special licensing fee charged businesses in Miami-Dade, is receiving praise for an outreach effort launched by interim CEO Robin Reiter, who took over after Nero’s forced resignation. Nero, who could not be reached Wednesday, was criticized for pushing back against commissioners trying to influence the Beacon Council and for inserting the organization in the debate on bringing casinos to downtown Miami — which Nero opposed but Gimenez favored.

After taking over, Reiter beefed up the use of elected officials’ quotes in Beacon Council press releases, expanded events into the western and southern areas of Miami-Dade, and began a series of free business seminars that feature different elected leaders prominently as the hosts (including Heyman’s Oct 29 event starting at 5 p.m. at the McDonald Center at 17501 NE 19th Ave.).

“I think the Beacon Council has taken some really positive steps,’’ said Lynda Bell, who serves as vice chair of the county commission and last year pushed to have Miami-Dade renegotiate its contract with the Beacon Council. “I think the future is bright.”

Though Williams assumes his $225,000-a-year post (plus a $68,000 yearly bonus) during something of a political honeymoon for the Beacon Council, the organization’s challenges remain.

County Hall leadership wanted someone else to get his job, namely Bill Johnson, the retiring Port Miami director who had the backing of county Mayor Carlos Gimenez and commissioners in his pursuit of the Beacon Council job.

Gimenez said he stayed out of the selection process, and that Williams is “saying the right things” since taking the job. But Gimenez shows no sign of easing the pressure on the Beacon Council to be more responsive to the county government that funds it.

He questions why the Beacon Council doesn’t have the word Miami in its name (“A beacon of what?’’ he asked in a recent interview) and wants to see the group be part of a larger effort to grow the economy that includes the privately-funded Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the largely tax-funded Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The problem we’ve had in Miami-Dade is everyone has a different mission,’’ Gimenez said. “We need to have the same mission. We need to find a way to coordinate these functions.”

In May, Gimenez hired an executive from New York’s version of the Beacon Council to assume a new $190,000-per-year post as his administration’s own head of economic development. Josh Gelfman, who graduated from Ransom Everglades High in 1992, holds the title of deputy director of regulatory and economic resources. .

Gelfman said he sees his role as pumping up Miami-Dade’s role in helping existing businesses and recruiting new ones — from freeing up more local business loans to exploring options for county-owned real estate that could help grow the economy. “My position gives me the responsibility of working to create traction wherever we can,’’ Gelfman said.

Gimenez’s support will be crucial since the Beacon Council cannot afford a significant reduction in tax funding.

Since 2007, according to internal financial records, the non-profit has drained its reserves by $2 million thanks to posting annual losses that ranged from $1.4 million in 2009 to $265,000 in the budget year that ended Sept. 30. Among the expenses that caused the shortfall: $130,000 to a CEO search firm, and $63,000 to lobby state lawmakers to boost the state’s “enterprise zones” program and to protect the business tax that funds the council.

“It’s not our preference to use the reserves,’’ said Joe Pallot, general counsel at aviation manufacturer Heico and the outgoing chairman of the Beacon Council. “At the same time, we recognize certain things need to be done. That’s why the reserves are there.”

The Beacon Council relied on tax dollars for 78 percent of its $5 million in cash revenue last year, in part thanks to a core of dues-paying members that leaders say is too small. While the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce reports about 5,000 dues-paying businesses as members, the Beacon Council reports only 231 for the current year. Of those, about 40 pay no cash dues but instead donate services (including the Miami Herald, which provides free ad space.)

Anderson said membership growth will be a priority this year, including an effort to bring back businesses that dropped out. “We have agreed we’re going to spend time figuring out in more detail who was lost, and why we lost them,’’ he said. “A year from now, I’d like people in this community to say our feeling is the Beacon Council has gotten better at listening.”

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