New and expanding firms thrive in Northeast Florida's business-friendly environment.
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Annandale Millwork President Rob Frogale knew having a presence in Florida-- with its bustling real estate market--was a must for his growing manufacturing company, which produces wall panels, roof trusses, floor systems, custom millwork, doors and windows.
But it was a visit to Northeast Florida for the Super Bowl in January 2005 that sealed the deal. Frogale liked what he saw on that trip so much that a year later, Winchester, Va.-based Annandale Millwork chose Yulee in Nassau County as the site for its new Southeast manufacturing facility.
With its 150-year-old lighthouse, Civil War fort state park and 50-block Victorian- era National Historic District, Nassau County is steeped in a past dating back more than 400 years. For Frogale, however, this place is all about the future.
|Facts & Figures|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Demographics USA 2005, TradeDimensions International Inc.; Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. EBI = effective buying/disposable income.
Annandale invested approximately $2.8 million to upgrade 60,000 square feet in the former S&G Packaging Facility. The county agreed to kick in $249,600 as its share of a Florida Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund.
While Frogale remains based at his company's Winchester plant, he flies into Northeast Florida at least once a month. He has bought a second home on Amelia Island, where he plays golf on the weekends and takes in some fishing.
"I consider myself lucky," he says. "Northeast Florida is a great place to be."
The financial services, manufacturing, and shipping sectors are finding new avenues for success in Florida's Northeast region.
Frogale and others like him are discovering a simple truth: When it comes to business and pleasure, few places are better than Northeast Florida. This region, consisting of seven counties, four of which border the Atlantic Ocean, offers a little bit of everything--from refreshing ocean waters and tranquil inland forests to world-class performing arts venues and the bone-crush-ing play of the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars.
Economic development activity for the entire region is largely coordinated through an umbrella agency-- Cornerstone Regional Development Partnership. Its executive director, Jerry Mallot, is widely recognized as a leader in economic development statewide.
While many ports throughout the United States are working to capitalize on increases in containerized cargo, few are better positioned to succeed than Nassau County's Port of Fernandina and the Port of Jacksonville (JaxPort). Both are within easy reach of eastern U.S. markets and offer ready access to the Caribbean basin as well as Central and South America. And with rising fuel costs making cross-country shipment by road and rail more expensive and labor disputes slowing the movement of goods through some West Coast ports, Asian carriers, including Mitsui O.S.K. Limited (MOL), are keen to establish a presence at JaxPort. MOL's 158-acre container terminal at Dames Point is set to open in late 2007.
Not surprisingly, the presence of this Asian carrier and the direct link it provides to countries through the Pacific Basin has triggered interest in both JaxPort and the surrounding area, where many transportation options are available.
Three interstates--I-95, I-295 and I-10--intersect at Jacksonville in Duval County, and I-75 lies just 60 miles west. In addition, U.S. 1, U.S. 17, U.S. 90 and U.S. 301 offer easy access to Georgia and the rest of Florida, and three major railroads--CSX, Norfolk Southern and Florida East Coast-- service the area.
At more than 840 square miles, Jacksonville is the largest city in the contiguous United States.
Mitsui and solid transportation options are two reasons Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire chose Cecil Commerce Center North in Jacksonville as the site of its new one million-square-foot distribution center. The company purchased 63.3 acres of land at the 1,853-acre industrial park, which is located about 20 minutes north of downtown. The $44 million project is expected to create 250 new jobs within 36 months and boast an annual payroll of approximately $9.5 million.
Nelson Miller, logistics director for Bridgestone Firestone, says MOL's presence has increased JaxPort's value exponentially. His company eyed several ports on the East Coast, including nearby Savannah, Ga., but ultimately decided JaxPort was a better fit.
"With that new terminal coming in we have concluded that Jacksonville is going to be a major port and not just a satellite port," Miller says.
A ready workforce
While most of the staff will be new hires from the local area, some senior management will be relocated to Jacksonville from Nashville and other parts of the United States. Filling these positions, Miller says, is no problem at all.
"I've got more people pounding on my door than you can shake a stick at," Miller says about employee interest in relocating to Northeast Florida. "It doesn't take a whole lot of thinking; Jacksonville is a good place to live."
Other activity that has occurred since the Mitsui deal includes an announcement by Michaels Stores--the nation's largest retailer of arts and crafts materials--to develop a regional distribution facility in Jacksonville. The chain is leasing 300,000 square feet of space for the handling and distribution of seasonal merchandise to its Southeast stores.
While JaxPort is emerging as a logistical distribution center, the surrounding Jacksonville metropolitan area continues to be a strong banking and financial center.
Merrill Lynch has plans to add 800 new high-paying jobs in its Jacksonville- based technology development, infrastructure support and services and operations divisions. The additional jobs will bring Merrill Lynch's employment numbers in Jacksonville to the 2,500 mark. Additionally, Merrill Lynch is earmarking $16 million to expand and renovate its southside campus.
By the end of 2006, Boston-based Fidelity Investments plans to open a new customer contact center on the south side of Jacksonville to support customer service for its retail brokerage division. Plans call for an investment of $27.25 million to refurbish the leased space and will mean the creation of 1,200 high-wage jobs over a four-year period.
Keeping up with the boom is a challenge that the Jacksonville Airport Authority, which owns and operates all of the commercial and recreational airports in the area, is well-equipped to handle.
Jacksonville International Airport (JIA), located just 15 minutes from downtown, is served by 15 airlines offering 250 daily flights to and from most major cities in the U.S. and is an international gateway. The newest addition, low-cost carrier JetBlue, began offering three daily nonstop flights between New York/JFK and JIA in summer 2006. Meanwhile, at Craig Airport, the general aviation facility, a $4.5 million construction project, which includes the addition of two hangars and 67 "parking slots," will be completed in November 2007.
Boasting a population of more than one million residents, the greater Jacksonville metropolitan area remains one of the nation's most affordable urban locations. The ACCRA Cost of Living Index puts housing prices here below the national average, and only five cities on the latest ACCRA report have more affordable utility rates. And thanks to the area's strong military presence, a talented, educated labor pool is readily available.
Jacksonville is home to three U.S. Navy installations, all of which continue to gain personnel. The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) resulted in an additional 2,500 naval personnel being assigned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Aviation Depot and Naval Station Mayport. Not only does the defense sector represent a $4 billion impact on the seven counties of Northeast Florida, many Navy retirees choose to remain in the area to make use of their skills in second careers.
Adjacent St. Johns County, the ninth fastest growing county in the U.S. and home to America's oldest city--St. Augustine--has a thoroughly modern business-friendly environment and several recent business expansions to report. Lab Connections, an importer/ distributor of scientific education laboratory equipment, has completed construction of a 9,750-square-foot building in Davis Industrial Park in west St. Augustine. In so doing, the firm qualified for grants equaling the value of four years' worth of county property and tangible personal property taxes. As further incentive, the county expedited the permitting process and waived both the impact fees and the costs of water and sewer connections.
For Lab Connections, these financial incentives were important, of course, but so was the quality of life in St. Johns County which, company President Roger Salloja contends, can't be beat. "St. Augustine is a friendly town and a good place to raise a family with a good school system," says this transplant from India.
The bustling activity in Northeast Florida has proved beneficial for St. Johns County-based Ice Express Inc., too. This company, which distributes ice to customers from Daytona Beach to Brunswick, Ga., built a 12,500-square-foot state-of-the-art ice manufacturing facility at Interstate Commerce & Industrial Park. Once again, St. Johns County approved tax incentives equaling the value of four years' worth of property and tangible personal property taxes and waived the impact fee and fees for water and sewer connections.
The U.S. Census Bureau puts two Northeast Florida counties--Flagler and St. Johns--among the top 10 spots on its list of the nation's 100 fastest growing counties.
Just to the south, Flagler County has been growing faster than any other U.S. county. Statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau in April show a 10.1% increase in population for Flagler from 2003 to 2004, and infrastructure improvements are under way to accommodate the growth.
A $1.5 million grant from the state's Economic Development Transportation Trust Fund will be used to improve roads in the area surrounding Sea Ray Boats Inc. This manufacturer of fiberglass- hulled pleasure yachts provides 644 full-time jobs and pumps $21 million annually in payroll dollars into the local economy. The infrastructure improvements, which are expected to be completed early in 2007, will ease traffic flow for company employees, vendors and residents of the area.
Baker, Clay and Putnam, the three inland counties in this region, offer plenty of opportunities for business development and expansion, too. Looking to build a new 120,000- square-foot manufacturing facility, Hanson Roof Tile found in Baker County the perfect combination of a skilled labor force and a Northeast Florida location. Hanson is the leading manufacturer of concrete roofing tile in the United States and a subsidiary of Hanson PLC, the world's second largest building materials producer.
Says Executive Vice President Dylan Walters, "Northeastern Florida was an ideal next step for us. Having a manufacturing facility in Baker County will help us better serve our customers in Northeast Florida and offer the option of Hanson Roof Tile to new customers further north."
The new $24 million facility is located at Enterprise West, a business park just outside Sanderson. Unlike the company's other manufacturing centers, the Baker County site will be built entirely of Hanson PLC products--brick, limestone, pavers, pipes and, of course, roofing tiles.
"We anticipate using this facility as a model and showcase for our customers, says Walters, adding that the plant will be able to produce 300,000 tiles annually and is designed for double that amount.
For the new plant, the company has drawn its workforce of 81 mostly from the surrounding area. Tapping into a skilled labor pool, says Walters, was easier than expected. "In interviews with candidates, we were pleased to continually find bright, motivated people. In fact, our hiring process moved more quickly than we anticipated because we were able to find great employees very quickly."
Stock Building Supply has had a similar positive expansion experience in Clay County. Stock is the nation's number one building supply distributor to professional contractors in the United States and a subsidiary of Wolseley PLC. Stock already had more than 30 locations across the Sunshine State, most of which, says Pete Buscetto, the company's North Florida manager, were acquired through acquisitions.
When it came time for the company to erect its first regional manufacturing center in the state, Stock chose a 260,000- square-foot location at Green Coves Springs in the Northeast Florida Industrial Complex. Stock met the requirements for the Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund program and made a $7.4 million commitment to improving the facility, formerly a grocery food distribution center. Nearly 50 jobs will be created during the first year, and Stock expects to hire upwards of 95 workers in the first three years. The number of employees is expected to increase to more than 150 within five years.
"I think everybody realizes Florida is a great place to live," says Buscetto, a recent transplant from Atlanta. "Clay County meets all my needs, from a business standpoint to recreation."
Putnam County has long been known for its natural beauty, with more than 27 parks and recreation areas and an abundance of trophy-sized largemouth black bass in the St. Johns River. But Putnam also courts new business.
Wal-Mart is building an 850,000- square-foot distribution center just south of Crescent City that will open in 2008 and is expected to have an $18 million economic impact on the city. A mixed-use development on the riverfront in downtown Palatka also is under construction.
Palatka Sheet Metal President Larry Tyson says the residential and commercial building boom going on in Northeast and Central Florida has fueled the growth of his one-year-old manufacturing business. When Tyson decided it was time to take the company from 44 employees to 100-plus, he looked no further than Palatka.
He bought five acres in the Kay Larkin Industrial Park, an Enterprise Zone, which makes Palatka Sheet Metal potentially eligible for business incentives. The 22,000-square-foot building is slated to open in 2007.
"It's convenient to everywhere we are working," Tyson says, quickly adding, "and the land is affordable. If you are looking at relocating, this is probably the next growth area in Florida."
Northeast Florida is emerging as a relocation hot spot because it offers something for every outdoor enthusiast-- from golfing and tennis to fishing and boating. Excellent academic opportunities are also widely available.
Two colleges--the University of North Florida (UNF) and Flagler College--have been flagged by Princeton Review as top choices. UNF is rated the fifth best value among public colleges and universities in the 2007 edition of "Top 10 Best Value Public Colleges," and Flagler College, a private college in St. Johns County, was listed in the 2007 edition of "America's Best Value Colleges."
Jacksonville University has seen significant enrollment growth in the last two years. Recent additions to the curriculum include an orthodontics training program as well as master's degree programs in nursing and business administration.
Florida Community College has five campuses and seven centers in Duval and Nassau counties. Both St. Johns River Community College and the First Coast Technical Institute have campuses in St. Johns, Clay and Putnam counties. And Jacksonville is home to the renowned Mayo Clinic, which will direct $41 million to medical research in 2006 alone.
Florida's "First Coast" also offers the right mix of old school charm and Southern hospitality. Just ask Trans Pacific Regional Vice President and General Manager Dennis Kelly.
In August 2005, just days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Kelly, who lived in Pass Christian, Miss., told his former employer he was heading to Jacksonville.
The Kellys' home was one of the few not affected by the storm surge, but the Port of Gulfport, where he worked, was wiped out. The storm-weary family found Jacksonville a welcoming place.
"No move is easy with a family," says Kelly, "but this has been a very, very smooth transition. The community here has received us very well. The workplace and the community as a whole have been very, very good."
-- Christine Jordan Sexton