Running on Empty
Nowhere are the pressures facing Big Bend's rural counties more apparent than in Jefferson County. Commissioners made what they called a heart-wrenching decision last fall to lay off a quarter of the county's workers. The 22 jobs axed included the county coordinator and, ironically, the local economic development director. The Economic Development Commission is now being partially funded by the city of Monticello and private contributions from local businesses, with Monticello Mayor Julie Conley serving as volunteer director.
The region's rural counties are suffering a double blow -- a cut in state funding combined with a dearth of economic growth. A recent analysis by the Florida Association of Counties found that revenue sources available to rural counties simply don't add up to enough to effectively run government, provide infrastructure and ensure public safety. "When you're faced with whether to cut deputies or economic development, there's not much of a choice," says Vivian Zaricki, the association's special projects coordinator.
In response, the smaller counties are trying to find strength in numbers. Regional initiatives to pool economic development and other resources are under way throughout rural north Florida. For example, Gadsden, Wakulla and Leon counties have started working together toward such goals as a regional transportation system and better regional planning.
Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget aims to bring some relief, including $25 million for the state's 27 smallest counties for road resurfacing and $23 million for wastewater, library and other projects.
TALLAHASSEE & Leon County
Key Trend: Downtown revitalization is going strong in Tallahassee, with three high-rise residential projects under way and a performing arts center and convention hotel on the drawing board. Secretary of State Glenda Hood is working with Mayor John Marks to create a cultural district. Meanwhile, an urban renewal project for Gaines Street ultimately could link FSU and FAMU -- a goal that's been in the works for years. But renewal also is causing a debilitating rift between the city and county. Leaders recently began mediation to head off a lawsuit over the city's plans for a community redevelopment area, or CRA. The city wants to fund improvements downtown through growth in property tax revenue within the proposed CRA's boundaries. Leon County says that could drain $129 million from its budget over 20 years. The county also decided to mount a PR campaign to stop the CRA.
Businesses to Watch: Tallahassee-based Capital City Bank Group (Nasdaq-CCBG) is forging ahead with a regional expansion. In January, it acquired Quincy State Bank, a $119-million asset institution with offices in Quincy and Havana, for $26.1 million. Quincy makes the 13th acquisition for CCBG in the past 18 years. Executive Vice President and CFO J. Kimbrough Davis says the company plans to buy on average one new bank a year for the foreseeable future. ... Tallahassee ISP ElectroNet Intermedia is tapping into the city's burgeoning healthcare community with a private fiber-optic medical network that allows providers to share patient records, including MRIs and X-rays, securely and fast. Founded by techie Allen Byington and banker Jim Hunt in 1996, ElectroNet focuses on professional and business users and was the first ISP in Tallahassee to offer DSL. The company has landed the city's major radiology firm, Radiology Associates, and is negotiating with area hospitals and HMOs to join its Private Medical Area Network.
Business to Watch: The $120-million Nestle Waters North America Madison County Bottling Facility at Blue Spring in the tiny town of Lee is the biggest economic boost Madison County has seen in years. Nestle has hired 71 people so far and plans eventually to employ more than 200, with an average wage of $27,000. State officials dismiss fears that the 1.47-million-gallon daily maximum draw will adversely affect the Suwannee River, saying the Nestle plant and others like it could provide local incentives to protect the state's springs.
Key Trend: For the past 20 years, Tallahassee's metropolitan statistical area has consisted of Leon and Gadsden counties. But the U.S. Census Bureau last year added Jefferson and Wakulla to the MSA, instantly increasing its population by 39,000. Economic development officials hope the bump will prompt increased interest from relocating companies. Part of the bureau's criteria: Whether more than a quarter of the adjacent-county population works in the central county. It found that 46% of Gadsden residents, 47% of Jefferson residents and 55% of Wakulla residents commute to Tallahassee for work.
Business to Watch: Hard-core bikers are fond of the saying "Live to Ride." Florida SafeRider Inc. has a better idea. Its motto: "Ride to Survive." Owned by motorcycle aficionado Al Wofford, Florida SafeRider has offered motorcycle safety courses part time at Tallahassee Community College's Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy in Havana for the past four years. But later this year, it will have a permanent home in Jefferson County's 60-acre industrial park on U.S. 19 two miles north of Interstate 10. With a USDA Rural Business Economic Development grant, the county is building a 4,000-sq.-ft. building and 60,000-sq.-ft. asphalt training lot for the company. In return, SafeRider plans to bring 1,500 to 1,800 students to the county each year for its two-day training courses.
People to Watch: Stephanie and Paul Metts are relative newcomers to Gilchrist County, but their renovation of Trenton's old Coca-Cola bottling plant with a quilt shop and restaurant has helped bring back the historic feel of downtown. The bottling plant was built in 1925, operated until 1975 and remained shuttered for 28 years before the couple bought it last year. Paul, retired CEO of Shands Hospital in Gainesville, oversaw its renovation. Stephanie opened the Cypress Swamp Cafe and the Suwannee Valley Quilt Shoppe. "We were hoping this would sort of jump-start downtown," she says, and perhaps it has. The old brick feed store next door has been restored as a veterinary office; another building across the street just sold for professional office space.
Key Trend: What could be called the largest state park in Florida, at 207 miles long, is expected to open its first cabins by the summer. The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail is a public-private partnership among the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Suwannee River Water Management District and businesses and communities in its eight-county path. Now under construction in parts of Hamilton, Suwannee and Columbia counties are five cabins at Stephen Foster State Park, five more at Suwannee River State park and two "river camps" where paddlers and hikers can find screened sleeping and dining platforms, bathrooms and even hot showers. Officials hope the trail lures visitors to the historic river and sparks economic development. Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed 2004-05 budget includes $2 million to complete the southern portion of the trail.
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