October 21, 2014

Big Bend

Cynthia Barnett | 4/1/2002
Officials in the big bend have long fretted that their region relies too much on government jobs. Those fears are now being realized as the nation's economy slows and Florida government downsizes. Gov. Jeb Bush's recommended budget this legislative session axes 3,000 state positions on top of 1,800 eliminated during the special budget-cutting session last fall.

With about 37% of its labor force employed by the state, Leon County is girding for increased unemployment as Florida privatizes some services. Economic development and local government officials have made job diversification a priority, starting with existing high-tech companies in the region. Part of the strategy: Enticing local tech companies' suppliers to locate nearby. Meanwhile, the Big Bend Jobs and Education Council is working on retraining programs specifically for state workers.

Job diversification is more problematic in the outlying counties, where prisons are sometimes the only game in town. In Baker and Gilchrist, for example, the state Department of Corrections employs nearly half of the labor force. When the economic slowdown forced Baha Industries in Lafayette County to shut down, 70 employees were left jobless. "That hurts in a little county like this," says Elvoy Land, chairman of the county's economic development authority. A 1,000-worker state prison is the major employer in Lafayette, leaving the displaced Baha workers few options. The county is working to lure new companies by offering $1 rent in its industrial park.

Government Jobs
Statewide, 14.3% of Florida's workers are employed by government. The percentage is far higher in the big bend region:

Baker 45.4%
Columbia 28.1%
Gadsden 35.1%
Gilchrist 45.7%
Hamilton 40.1%
Jefferson 35.2%
Lafayette 39.3%
Leon 38.6%
Madison 26.4%
Suwannee 18.7%
Taylor 23.3%
Wakulla 33.8%

Source: Enterprise Florida

Tallahassee & Leon County
Key Trend: Tallahassee's sky-high airfares have for years been the bane of business, university and government leaders here. The arrival last fall of Orlando-based AirTran is expected to change the capital's reputation for pricey flights, with round-trip offerings to Atlanta as low as $88 and to Miami for $98. Tallahassee lured AirTran with an incentives package that included $2.1 million in financial support, promotional help and use of airport facilities.

Person to Watch: Tallahassee's ambitious young mayor, 34-year-old Scott Maddox, is stepping down to run his first statewide race -- for attorney general. Maddox was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission as a 24-year-old law school student and became mayor at 26. A darling of the state's Democrats, Maddox faces state Sen. Buddy Dyer of Orlando in the party primary.

Business to Watch: MGT of America, which does management consulting for universities, community colleges, public schools and local and state governments around the nation, expects its business will grow because of President George Bush's K-12 accountability initiatives. The national economic slowdown resulted in a loss of contracts in the last quarter of 2001, but programs on management efficiency and those targeting low-performing schools are helping MGT pick up clients. The company plans to expand into the Midwest and upper East Coast later this year.

Major Challenge: While Tallahassee's downtown has come a long way in the past 10 years, revitalization efforts have fallen short to some extent. Downtown still loses businesses to growing suburbs. Some city council members believe they can lure more business downtown by lifting building height restrictions to 150 feet -- or 15 stories -- an issue they'll tackle this summer.

Baker/Hamilton Counties
Key Trend: Wal-Mart's $40-million produce distribution center set to open this month in Baker's industrial park east of Macclenny has had a big impact on jobs and development in these Georgia-border counties. The company has already hired more than 400 local residents at a starting wage of $11.25 an hour, 34% higher than the current private sector average wage of $8.41.

Person to Watch: As manager of Baker County WorkSource, the area's workforce development group, Faron Miles handles applications that have poured in for Wal-Mart's distribution center and related businesses.

"This is the best thing that has happened to the area in history, job-wise," he says.
Business to Watch: In Hamilton County, officials were devastated during last year's special session when Secretary of State Katherine Harris cut funding for the Florida Folk Festival, which brings 20,000 music fans to tiny White Springs each May. But the festival is back in business with the help of backers including New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who kicked in $78,000, and lawmakers who maneuvered to move the festival to the Florida Park Service. The festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Columbia/Suwanee Counties
Key Trend: Columbia and Suwannee counties have relatively well-diversified economies compared to their neighbors in the region. But growth-management issues are coming to a head here. Much of the counties' land is zoned for rural, five-acre densities, keeping small towns like Branford and Wellborn from achieving the urban status that some would like to see. Suwannee County commissioners will tackle revising their Comprehensive Land Use Plan this year; Lake City business leaders hope that Columbia County commissioners will soon follow.

Person to Watch: Lee Lewis, the young vice president of First Federal Savings Bank of Florida, was just named president of the Lake City-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce and hopes to help lead the county toward smarter growth management. "Fifteen to 20 years from now, we could be a Raleigh-Durham," says Lewis, 32. "We're not going to get there unless we focus on planning and formulating our growth-management strategy."

Business to Watch: Gulf Atlantic Pump and Dredge, a manufacturer that sells its pumps around the globe, is moving from Mississippi to Suwannee County's new 97-acre commerce park just east of Live Oak on U.S. 90. The company, which plans to hire about 25 local residents, expects to open here by June.

Gilchrist/Lafayette Counties
Key Trend: Gilchrist and Lafayette counties are home to some stunning freshwater vistas, including lakes, springs and the Suwannee River. Gilchrist has mounted an aggressive program to build nature-based tourism that includes marketing Trenton as one of the trailheads to the Nature Coast State Park Trail; getting the word out about Ginnie, Blue, Hart and other area springs; and encouraging small businesses such as canoe outposts, boat tours and outfitters.

Business to Watch: Hart Springs will undergo a major expansion this year, with a new water-treatment plant, a doubling of campsites and the development of 200 acres of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.

Madison/Taylor Counties
Key Trend: Lack of infrastructure continues to stymie growth in both counties, particularly Madison, where the antiquated, 40-year-old sewer system is operating at 90% capacity. But expanding the system will cost some $11 million -- a real conundrum in one of the poorest counties in the state. The Legislature last year appropriated $600,000, and local officials are working on a combination of grants, loans and bonds to come up with the bulk of the funding.

Person to Watch: Taylor County native Charles Wimberly, whose Triangle Engineering Inc. in Perry manufactures fuel cells for race cars, hopes to break into track ownership. He's purchased the old Seminole Raceway in Leon County, which closed in 1982, and hopes to turn it into an official National Hot Rod Association track.

Business to Watch: United Welding Services will expand its plant and employee base this year after Taylor County received a $350,000 grant from the state Department of Community Affairs to extend the city's sewer line to the company, located in the county industrial park just south of Perry on U.S. 19. The company plans to add some 25 employees, bringing the total to just over 150.

Gadsden/Jefferson/Wakulla Counties
Key Trend: These counties use their proximity to Tallahassee as a selling point to professionals who want a rural lifestyle and a short commute to the capital. Unfortunately for local businesses, those who commute to Tallahassee tend to spend their money there. Officials in these counties believe that if they could lure more high-paying jobs, workers would choose not to commute. "Two miles vs. 18 miles makes a big difference if we could offer them a comparable job," says Frank Stone, executive director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Council.

Person to Watch: Marcia Elder has long lobbied lawmakers for smart growth management as executive director of the American Planning Association and working on various consulting jobs through her business, Creative Pursuits Inc. She has opened a branch in Monticello, where she lives and operates a retreat called White Dog Farms.

Business to Watch: The owners of the Sweet Magnolia Bed and Breakfast have bought a 65-foot luxury boat and branched out into dinner cruises and charters, bringing carloads of people into tiny St. Marks every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.

Tags: Big Bend

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