Economic Development: High Hopes- Northeast- Sept. 2003
Jim Poole, executive director of the Lake City-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, insists they aren't looking through rose-colored glasses. The region, he says, is far from an economic powerhouse. Dixie, Gilchrist and Union counties are among the state's poorest. (At $23,852, Dixie County has the lowest median household income in the state.)
Only Columbia County, with its Lake City hub, boasts a diverse and growing business base. And according to John Chastain, executive director of the Florida Crown Workforce Board Inc., the news from Columbia County in recent months has been positive. The county's unemployment rate remains below the state average, as several local businesses -- notably a 3-year-old computer support call center -- have consistently added employees.
Still, Chastain says, a frustrating 40% of Columbia County workers commute to Gainesville and Jacksonville, many for the kind of high-skill/high-tech jobs Columbia hasn't been able to attract.
The business climate in neighboring Dixie, Gilchrist and Union counties also remains largely stagnant. Attempts to lure companies to the three rural counties have largely come up empty, primarily because of infrastructure problems.
While the state is promising more financial and planning assistance following the "critical concern" designation, Poole and others say they have yet to see much of an impact. They say the governor's initiative joins a list of existing programs aimed at helping rural areas, most of which are woefully underfunded.
"The money just isn't there from the state to make the kind of grassroots improvements we need," says Chastain.
Competition for new industry is fierce, says Poole, particularly from nearby Jacksonville, Georgia and Alabama.
"They kill us on incentives," says Poole. "We're getting the leads. We know who's in the market. But we simply don't have the incentives in place to compete."
While local economic development leaders will continue to try to land new business, Chastain believes the key to the region's long-term economic health may come from within.
In Dixie County, where lumber is the dominant industry, Chastain says the state could provide incentives to help local mills expand and modernize. And in Gilchrist County, which boasts numerous freshwater springs and nature trails, an ecotourism industry could develop with state investments in marketing and resource management.
"We need to capitalize on the unique advantages each county has to offer," says Chastain. Adds Poole: "With the right approach and more help from the state, we won't be an area of 'critical concern' for long."
IN THE NEWS
Alachua County -- Ixion Biotechnology won a $763,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to research ways to relieve problems associated with urinary tract catheters and stents. Ixion has received 13 such grants over the past three years totaling almost $4 million.
Nearly 300 third-graders, or 15% of third-graders in the county's public schools, will have to repeat the grade after they failed the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Regeneration Technologies (Nasdaq-RTIX), a maker of tissue implants used in surgical procedures, and Exactech (Nasdaq-EXAC), a Gainesville orthopedic products manufacturer, have been added to the Russell 2000 stock index.
Gainesville -- PPI construction management announced it is overseeing two University of Florida-related projects: Expansion of the Legal Information Center and a law school building and construction of Oak Hammock, a $123-million continuing-care retirement community. Oak Hammock residents will have campus privileges similar to those enjoyed by university staff and faculty.
Hawthorne -- City Commissioner DeLoris Roberts-Cheatham was elected by fellow commissioners to replace four-year incumbent John Martin as mayor of the Alachua County city, which is the subject of a state audit looking for several thousand dollars in missing revenue. Martin remains a commissioner.
Jacksonville -- Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer will receive an $11.3-million incentive package to operate an assembly plant at the Cecil Commerce Center on the city's Westside. The deal includes construction of a 71,000-sq.-ft. hangar and a $2-million grant to build taxiways and roads.
A local development group will build a three-story, 45,000-sq.-ft. office building on the city's Southside. The $3-million complex will serve as headquarters for Florida Banks, Greene-Hazel & Associates and Phoenix Realty Group.
Despite an uncertain financial picture, the University of North Florida is moving ahead with plans to boost enrollment by 4,500 students over the next 13 years. The university now has 13,800 students.
Railroad giant CSX Transportation cut 143 jobs, mostly in supervisory positions. The layoffs are part of an ongoing effort to eliminate 900 jobs through layoffs and attrition.
Jacksonville International Airport has started work on a $25.5-million renovation of its main terminal. The 14-month project will relocate and centralize the airport's security checkpoints.
A decade-long battle between Winn-Dixie Stores (NYSE-WIN) and the Internal Revenue Service ended when the supermarket chain agreed to pay $14 million to settle a 1994 tax dispute.
Jacksonville Beach -- LandMar Group has broken ground on its second oceanfront condominium, an 11-story building at First Street South and Third Avenue South called The WaterMark.
Mayport -- Officials say a developer is looking to build a 90-room, suite-style hotel along the St. Johns River on Ocean Street. The hotel, which should be ready in time for the 2005 Super Bowl, will cater to tourists and personnel from the nearby naval base.
Putnam County -- Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a bill that would have made it more difficult to tear down a controversial dam at the Rodman Reservoir. The Legislature has tried for several years to preserve the reservoir, which is a popular fishing ground.
St. Johns County -- Texas-based D.R. Horton, the nation's largest home builder, announced plans for a 1,160-lot subdivision on 690 acres near World Golf Village.
Entertainment Group Fund Inc. of Jupiter says it will build a $12-million, 10,000-seat amphitheater on 50 acres near the intersection of I-95 and S.R. 16.
Taylor Woodrow Communities has broken ground on St. Johns Forest, a 500-home subdivision located off C.R. 210 at I-95.
Yulee -- Ceramica Alberdi, an Argentina-based manufacturer of ceramic and porcelain tiles, plans to renovate a 330,000-sq.-ft. abandoned factory in Yulee, creating 170 jobs.
CITY HALL CLASH
JACKSONVILLE -- The city's chief operating officer, Sam Mousa, resigned after reportedly clashing with Mayor John Peyton's top budget official over spending priorities. Mousa, a 16-year City Hall veteran who managed the $2.2-billion Better Jacksonville Plan for former Mayor John Delaney, was replaced by Department of Public Works Director Lynn Westbrook.