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June 18, 2018

North Central

John M. Dunn | 4/1/2002
In north central Florida, rural counties such as Bradford and Union just can't attract all the newcomers they'd like. Though their sylvan way of life is preserved, residents often don't enjoy the amenities of larger counties. For instance, coastal Dixie, with a population of 14,337, doesn't have a hospital.

Meanwhile, officials in booming Alachua County nearby are trying to stop what they see as runaway growth. "They're taking citizen input to heart, and the constituency with the loudest voice gets the attention," says Melanie Ferreira, of Gainesville's Council for Economic Outreach. "And it's the environmentalist contingency that has the ear of the commissioners right now."

Last year, for instance, when Watson Construction wanted to build an asphalt plant in Gainesville, neighborhood associations protested. In response, the city imposed a six-month moratorium on certain types of industry, including asphalt plants.

Though the ban is gone, the city now relies on a newly commissioned study that prioritizes industries by how much pollution they create. Under the new rules, Watson needs a special use permit to build.

Gainesville also needs to resolve a proposed update to its comp plan that would require builders to create five acres of wetlands for each one they destroy. Though some builders are miffed, many like one element of the proposed plan that allows them to create wetlands anywhere in a nearby watershed area, not just on their own land as before.

Builders are less forgiving, however, of Alachua County Commission's recently revised comp plan -- one a local Sierra Club official deems "revolutionary." In essence, says Commissioner Dave Newport, the commission has pretty much signed on to the concepts of "New Urbanism" and the ideas of Miami-based planner Andres Duany. Among other goals, commissioners hope the plan will reduce sprawl and preserve green spaces by restricting the size of the urban growth area and concentrating new homes and businesses near Gainesville, where they must connect to existing water and sewer lines.

Many Gainesville builders say the plan is too restrictive and will drive up construction costs by making "developable" land scarce. Many also dismiss the notion that growth in Alachua must be curtailed because it doesn't pay for itself. For proof, they point to a recent study conducted by two UF economists and commissioned by the Gainesville Builders Association that claims a new home actually nets the county $3,114.

Key Trend: As Alachua grapples with growth issues, Gainesville is poised to annex surrounding areas with access to city services. "We feel the city has outgrown the city limits and needs to reflect where the true city lies," says Wayne Bowers, Gainesville's city manager. A primary target is an area next to Gainesville's southwest city limit that's thick with university students who ride city buses.

Person to Watch: State budget cuts always loom large in Gainesville, where government employs 35% of the workforce. Locals are watching how Charles Young, 70, the University of Florida president, guides the region's economic engine -- the university has an estimated annual impact of $3.2 billion -- through tough times. UF Provost David Colburn says the university anticipates a 6% cut in its budget, which will mean bigger classes and 200 fewer new hires.

Business to Watch: Last December, Exactech Inc. emerged victorious when a three-judge arbitration panel resolved the company's three-year legal dispute with another Alachua County orthopedic-products manufacturer, Regeneration Technologies. Exactech now has the exclusive rights to market and distribute a bone paste product, developed by the University of Florida Tissue Bank. Exactech says that it was "significantly impacted" by its dispute with Regeneration. Still, the company says preliminary figures indicate about $46.6 million in revenues in 2001. Executives anticipate revenues to be between $55 million and
$58 million for 2002.

Major Challenge: Both Gainesville and Alachua County are searching for ways to upgrade blighted east Gainesville as growth races west of the city into the rural countryside. Alachua also has to decide how to spend $29 million for its new "Alachua County Forever" program. Should it buy land for conservation, parks or both? Plus, voters will decide in a county referendum whether to impose campaign contribution restrictions on themselves.

Key Trend: Marion County's population -- with a median age of 44 -- should get even older as The Villages, a huge upscale residential project straddling Lake, Sumter, and Marion counties ["The Village People," September 2001], steadily progresses toward a buildout of 100,000 within the next 20 years and possibly becomes the biggest urban area in north central. Top Of The World, another huge retirement development on S.R. 200 in west Marion, plans to add 32,400 homes in the next 25 years. Small wonder construction of two new hospitals and expansion of an existing facility are under way in the area. This trend is already causing political candidates to focus less on Ocala and more on the growing retiree centers at election time.

Business to Watch: Last year, Cingular Wireless closed 27 small call centers across the nation and consolidated them into six new, large centers, including one in Marion County. Last summer, 100 employees moved to Ocala and joined 833 local hires.

Person to Watch: Frank Stronach has announced plans to build a racetrack in Marion County. The first phase calls for a $60-million to $70-million complex that would include a racetrack, theater, convention center and other structures.

Major Challenge: Marion must decide how to respond to a federal mandate requiring it to comply with storm wastewater rules. Actually, the mandate represents "a step forward because now the county will have to address the issue," says Janet Tutt, assistant county administrator. But how the tax-resistant commission will pay for the project isn't yet clear. County commissioners recently voted to buy optical-scan voting machines, which are much cheaper than the $3.3-million touch-screen system they had wanted. Marion also needs $45 million for capital improvements, including renovation of the public library and construction of a new jail, state attorney's office and other government buildings. Meanwhile, Ocala is still licking its wounds in the aftermath of a big economic disappointment last summer and looking for new prospects. After the local EDC put together $3.2 million in state and federal grants to clean up a polluted brownfield and rehabilitate an abandoned 68,000-sq.-ft. building to entice Overhill Farms to come to town with 189 jobs, the California-based food processor suddenly backed out of the deal. The effort, says one unhappy EDC official, was supposed to have been "a poster child project."

Levy/Dixie Counties
Key Trend: Water issues reign in north central's coastal counties. Levy lacks enough water and sewer lines, thwarting efforts to attract businesses. Fears are growing that too many new septic tanks associated with a proposed residential development near Cedar Key will hurt the area's $10-million clam industry. The first phase of the Sunshine Parkway is opening up Levy to northbound traffic from Tampa.

Environmentalists, frustrated by their failure to stop the first phase of the project, vow to halt further construction. In Dixie, growing numbers want to live by the water. "Riverfront properties have shot up recently from $45,000 an acre to $85,000," says county coordinator Arthur Bellot, because an old local family decided to sell off some of its holdings.

Organization to Watch: The 2-year-old Dixie/Gilchrist/Levy Tourist Development Board is pushing eco-tourism with its "Pure Water Wilderness" campaign. The board won a grant from the Florida Association of Counties a couple of years ago to develop its eco-tourist venues.

Sumter County
Business to Watch: Pure Quality Water Services Inc., a bottling company in Leesburg, is building an assembly and distribution center in Sumter for a new product the company hopes will revolutionize water-consumption policies worldwide. "It's a machine that takes water out of air and then filters and stores it for individual use," says spokesperson Martha Dunwoody. Even bigger units are being designed. The firm hopes to hire 35 and expand to 150.

Person to Watch: Diana Lee takes over as Sumter's new economic development council executive director as more development moves west from Orlando into Sumter.

Bradford/Putnam/Union Counties
Key Trends: The first phase of a $1-million-plus makeover of the Keystone Heights Air Park in Bradford and Clay counties recently got under way. Hopes are high that the spruced-up facility will "entice large numbers of corporate jets" to the rural area, says Don Ramdass, an aviation services manager with Earth Tech Consulting Inc. In addition, another $1-million renovation project gave the downtown area of Lake Butler in Union County a much-needed facelift and possible economic boost. Also, $1 million is being allocated for the first phase of a $5-million eco-tourism hiking and canoe project at Alligator Creek in Bradford. In nearby Putnam, local officials hope a new $9-million water and sewer project will protect the St. Johns River and promote economic growth in the eastern part of the county. Among road projects: A proposed S.R. 301 bypass could ease Starke's traffic problems in Bradford County. But many locals fear the bypass could also hurt the local economy if too many cars are redirected. Meanwhile, many in Putnam are counting the days until a major east/west highway corridor linking I-75 and I-95 is finished. County administrator Rick Leary predicts the completion "will be the springboard to development in the county." Lake Butler's city commission has also approved plans to improve parks, build a new city hall and fire station and develop a Lake Butler/Palatka-Greenway Trail with a trailhead in Lake Butler's downtown area.

People to Watch: Most of Putnam's county commissioners are newcomers to county office. Four out of five have served one term or less. So far, local residents are waiting to see which way their freshly minted commissioners are headed.

Tags: North Central

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