The north central region is rich in scenery and offers a slower-paced life -- qualities that attract growth. It is a growing transportation hub and has plenty of water, which is rapidly becoming the No. 1 issue in sustaining growth elsewhere in the state.
While road improvements are opening up isolated areas in Sumter, Dixie and Bradford counties, air service remains a weakness. Ocala lacks a major air carrier. And although USA Airways Express and Delta Connections serve Gainesville, a shortage of routes, competitive rates and passenger seats means the Gainesville airport could be losing up to 75% of the local market, says Gainesville Airport CEO Rick Crider.
Help could be on the way if the federal government and the top brass of Northwest Airlines approve a plan that lets the company serve Gainesville and provide more options and competition.
GAINESVILLE & Alachua County
Key Trend: Alachua County's push to become a biotech hub is receiving a boost as construction for the University of Florida's $10-million Center of Excellence in Regenerative Health Biotechnology gets under way this year. UF researchers plan to conduct pure research, lease patents to commercial firms and spur startup companies. "This will be a big boom to existing biotech companies in the area and attractive to others in the field looking for a place to relocate," says Melanie Ferreira of the Gainesville-based Council for Economic Outreach.
People to Watch: In January, Bernard Machen became the new president of the University of Florida -- the region's largest economic engine. The former president of the University of Utah comes with a reputation as a scholar with a knack for getting state resources for education. "We're looking forward to his reprising that role in Gainesville," says Brent Christensen, executive director of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce. ... Richard Allen, co-founder of Regeneration Technologies, which employs over 400 in the city of Alachua, now has a new startup -- Synogen, a medical technology venture capital firm. Allen is also chairman of the newly formed Emergent Growth Fund LLC that raises venture capital from more than 50 Gainesville/Ocala investors who invest at least $50,000 and provide professional expertise. So far, $2.5 million has been raised. In addition, Allen and his wife, Susan Martin, lead an international effort to improve the quality of healthcare and education of Cambodian villagers. ... Entrepreneur Jamie S. Groom, another founder of the highly successful Regeneration Technologies, now is the CEO and co-founder of AxoGen, a new Gainesville-based biomedical company that commercializes products developed by researchers at the University of Florida's McKnight Brain Institute that enable surgeons to graft and regenerate damaged peripheral nerves.
Business to Watch: Naylor Publications, an international publisher of professional and trade publications with facilities in Canada and Sacramento, Calif., is expanding its Gainesville headquarters by adding a 60,000-sq.-ft. building. Company executives also plan to triple the staff to 360 workers in the next three to five years.
OCALA & Marion County
Key Trend: "We have positive manufacturing activity going on with lots of small- to medium-sized companies investing between one-half to $2 million," says Pete Tesch, president and CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Development Corp. The city of Ocala itself may also invest. A consultant hired by the city indicates that its share could run as high as $9.6 million of the $33 million needed to raze downtown buildings and build restaurants, mixed-use retail stores and residences with a historic ambience.
People to Watch: For 22 years, Paul Nugent worked as an Ocala city planner and assistant city manager. Now he's the city manager and is largely responsible for shepherding Ocala's redevelopment effort. "He knows how to balance the demands from supporters of the environment, culture, growth and pure history in the city," says Janet Tutt, Marion County deputy administrator who once supervised Nugent. ... Two years ago, Ocala's Paula King helped spearhead the community effort that so far has raised $1.3 million to boost the arts in Ocala. Now she chairs the local chamber of commerce committee that's trying to promote a tourist tax to increase tourism in Ocala. Four previous attempts to pass such a tax by others failed in recent years.
Businesses to Watch: Clairson Industries, an Ocala maker of molded plastic precision, medical and surgical instruments, now employs 125 and plans to add another 50 in two years. ... ESD Waste2Water Inc., a manufacturer of equipment that purifies water for industrial use, expects to open a 60,000-sq.-ft. facility in Ocala.
Person to Watch: David Moffit's construction company, M.C. of Florida, received the Sumter County Economic Development Council's 2003 award for manufacturing. His Microtel Inns & Suites also received an award in the hospitality category. A builder of upscale residences and commercial and office space, Moffit has "helped to revitalize the downtown area of Bushnell, the county seat," says council Executive Director Diana Lee.
Business to Watch: The Villages, a golf retirement development that spans Sumter, Marion and Lake counties, continues to be Sumter's main economic powerhouse. Company executives expect construction to get under way on more than 30,000 homes over the next 10 years and a new town center called Lake Sumter Landing.
Key Trend: Modest change may be coming to Dixie County now that the county intends to supplement recent renovation at the Cross City Airport by building new T-hangars and a new executive office park, during the next few years. Meanwhile in Levy, hope runs high that the county can attract more retirees if Ameris Health System -- a Nashville-based healthcare management services company -- moves ahead with plans to build an $18-million hospital in Chiefland. If built, the facility would be the county's second healthcare facility.
People to Watch: Construction is under way for Dixie County developer George Edwards' Bridge Point, a seven-story condominium development that will eventually have 500 single-family units ranging from $495,000 to $600,000 located along the Steinhatchee River. The project includes hundreds of marina slips and 25,000 square feet of retail space. ... State park concessionaire Chris Brown expects his new 65-foot paddle wheeler to provide dinner cruises soon on the Suwannee River in Levy County. Engineers and fabricators are also building him a second tourist cruiser, a 67-foot, half-size replica of "The City of Hawkinsville," a sternwheeler that steamed the Suwannee River in the early 20th century. Brown expects to spend $200,000 on the boats and employ 20.
Industry to Watch: The Cedar Key Aquaculture Association successfully lobbied the state and received $100,000 to market clams in 2002. Last year, the group helped thwart attempts in Tallahassee to cut $4.8 million from the Division of Aquaculture. Now, the clam farmers want to create a statewide association. "These efforts show maturation as an industry," says Leslie Sturmer, a University of Florida Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Service agent.
Key Trend: New video stores and restaurants are appearing along S.R. 301 outside of Starke in Bradford County, but a new Wal-Mart supercenter also may be coming to the area. The store's arrival could add 150 jobs but also destroy many existing jobs.
People to Watch: Bob Canady and a relatively new board of directors of the Keystone Heights Airport have gotten grants to renovate hangars and runways and help make 2,200 nearby acres more attractive for industrial development. ... Ron Lilly is the new CEO of the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce of Bradford, Union and southwest Clay counties. The south Florida transplant believes his previous chamber work in rapidly growing St. Lucie County enables him to bring "a planned growth approach" to his new home turf.
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