April 25, 2018

Big Bend Region

Julie Bettinger | 4/1/2001
Tallahassee: Targeting Infrastructure

Despite all the negative press over last fall's election fiasco, Tallahassee is still basking in the attention it received. Sue Dick, president of both the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee/Leon County, says her job of recruiting business to the area is now much easier. "You can't buy the kind of advertising we got every night on CNN and the national networks." Not only do other people now know where Tallahassee is, but they can even spell it, she says.

Another election-related issue that has businesspeople talking is the success of the 15-year penny sales tax extension, which voters approved last fall by a 60-40 margin. The $600 million generated by the tax will fund transportation, stormwater and redevelopment projects recommended in a citizen-authored report called Blueprint 2000.

Todd Sperry, president of Sperry & Associates, a planning, design and construction firm, says residents had grown tired of waiting for political leadership to come up with a solution to the area's infrastructure problems. "It took the imagination and ideas from a group of private citizens who didn't have to follow the political rules to get it done," he says. "It then took the imagination of voters to endorse the sales tax to get the funding to make Blueprint 2000 happen. People finally believed."

A longtime proponent of making growth management rules more business-friendly, Sperry says the plan to move toward regional rather than individual stormwater facilities is hugely significant. Besides being an eyesore -- giant craters surrounded by a fence at virtually every new or renovated office and retail center -- 80% of the current facilities are not in compliance. "Even the government can't maintain the facilities to their own standards," he says.

People to Watch
Kay Stephenson, president and CEO of Datamaxx Applied Technologies, has built the company she owns, along with partners Jonathan Waters and Steve Tims, from four employees to 85 since 1991. Seventy percent of the law enforcement agencies in the country use Datamaxx software products, including the FBI. The company is moving into a new 34,000-sq.-ft. building in the Southwood development in the fall.

Blake Casper, whose family owns 49 McDonald's in the Tampa area, has purchased 14 franchises in Tallahassee under the name Caspers Group. Casper, 27, carries a lot of political clout.

Businesses to Watch
Fringe Benefits Management Co., named the third-largest benefits broker in the U.S. last year, will be moving to a new $6.5 million, 50,000-sq.-ft. building owned by a partnership of developers and Fringe Benefits Management stockholders.

P.A.T.LiVE, once a toll-free voicemail company, has moved into providing "live" personal assistance to voice mailbox owners as they program their phones with virtual office features, including fax storage, voice-to-text messaging and follow-me-anywhere calls. The company's president, Glen Davidson, is planning for what he says will be 500% growth in the next three to five years by building a 1,000-seat call center in Summit East high-tech business park.

Key Statistic
From 1999 to 2000, the median sales price of a home in Tallahassee -- now $129,200 -- increased 12%, tying Fort Lauderdale for first place among statewide metro areas for median sales increases.
County Outlook

Jefferson, Leon, Wakulla
Leon County is seeking certification as a "microelectronic-ready" site in order to better position it for semiconductor industries. Some companies will only look at communities that have received certification, says Tallahassee Chamber President Sue Dick. Tallahassee already has the infrastructure: It ranks first in the state in bandwidth availability per capita. The other areas to be assessed: Quality of life; workforce availability and skills; and water and electrical capacity.

The area is expected to receive a boost from the new medical school awarded to Florida State University last year. The med school will be moving to the site now occupied by FSU's lab school for grades K-12, which will be moving to the St. Joe/Arvida Southwood community next fall.

Schools are in the news in Wakulla County, too. Wakulla High School was one of 10 high schools in the state to receive $200,000 for its School to Work and vocational opportunities programs. Medart and Shadeville elementary schools also received more than $130,000 as a "performance incentive" for their ranking in the governor's A+ accountability plan.

In Jefferson County, the big economic development news is ... economic development. Frank Stone, executive director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Council, says the county is attracting more attention since establishing a public/private partnership to spur business recruitment and hiring an executive director last year. Stone predicts the town of Lloyd, which just received $2.5 million for a new regional water system, will be a big beneficiary of recruitment efforts.

Business to Watch
St. Marks Powder, formerly Olin Corp., then Primex Technologies, became a General Dynamics company in January. The manufacturer of smokeless gunpowder has minimized its dependency on military contracts, which now make up about 30% of its business. The company has 50 buildings and nearly 2,000 acres in rural Wakulla County.
Baker, Columbia, Gilchrist, Suwannee, Union
Despite protests, Suwannee American Cement has started construction on its cement plant in Suwannee County -- 31¼2 miles from the Ichetucknee River. Environmentalists lost three appeals seeking to block the $80-million operation, which will create 80 jobs, because of its potential environmental impact on the river.

The company is pursuing tax abatements and has offered to bring other operations -- including a trucking facility and corporate offices -- to get them, says Eddy Hillhouse, president of the Suwannee County Economic Alliance. Considering that it would mean an additional 55 jobs, including a number of executive positions, the prospects look bright.

Baker County received good news when Wal-Mart decided to locate an 880,000-sq.-ft. food distribution center on 124 acres in Macclenny. The $40-million project will open in the first quarter of 2002 with 350 employees, and 250 more in three years. Both developments should benefit nearby Gilchrist and Union counties, as well.

In Columbia County, Timco was forced to lay off 150 workers, citing increased fuel costs and a lagging economy. The Lake City aircraft maintenance company will still have 550 employees.

Person to Watch
Baker County Development Commission Executive Director Ginger Barber was praised by Wal-Mart officials for her tireless effort and solid research in recruiting their distribution center. She was instrumental in pulling together a hefty incentive package, including her own organization's donation of 91 acres and payment of office rent for a company to handle initial recruiting, drug screening and hiring.
Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette
PCS' announcement that it was laying off 387 workers rippled through three Florida counties and several in Georgia. The Hamilton County phosphate mining company has many 25-year employees in high-paying positions and is one of the best-paying employers in the Big Bend region, with jobs averaging $16 to $18 an hour.

But the county received some good news recently when D&W Construction, a sewer rehabilitation company, announced it would move its headquarters to the old Jasper Textile facility. The two buildings, totaling 72,500 square feet, will be used for manufacturing and distribution, creating 65 jobs.

Hamilton County was also able to retain Energy Saving Products, which employs 60. The company, which previously operated out of an old tobacco warehouse, will move to 73,800 square feet of space later this year.

Farther south, Lafayette and Dixie counties seem to be getting newcomers from South Florida in search of "the real Florida." Dixie County Coordinator L. Arthur Bellot Jr. says early retirees are moving to the rural county for its affordable land prices.

Dixie County gained a new airplane maintenance and repair business, Red Top Aviation, which won a contract to provide training for aircraft mechanics at Lake City Community College. The company, with five employees, will also provide flight training.

Bass Assassin, which manufactures fishing worms and other products, has expanded by another 10,000 square feet in the Lafayette County Industrial Park. It will also have a new neighbor; Lafayette County Development Authority has moved into its 2,400-sq.-ft. headquarters nearby. Birmingham, Ala.-based Scott Enterprise, a tire recycling company, has also moved in.

Attraction to Watch
The state's new Nature & Heritage Tourism Center has just opened in White Springs. The site in Hamilton County was chosen because it is just three miles from I-10 and I-75. Unlike other Florida welcome centers, the Nature & Heritage Tourism Center will be the starting point for hiking and biking trails and will promote only heritage and nature-based activities in Florida.
Madison, Taylor
The city of Madison is trying to figure out a way to fund $16 million in wastewater improvements. As with many towns in rural counties, Madison's facilities need to be updated and expanded to take care of existing businesses and to accommodate new businesses moving into the area. Community leaders are researching state and federal resources and considering a local option tax for the upgrades. "It's got to be done," says Joe Boyles, executive director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. "We can't put it off."

Dixie Packers, which furnishes a variety of meats to Winn-Dixie Stores, will likely be Madison's first customer for a new wastewater system. The company currently employs 900, almost 14% of the county's workforce, and is entertaining expansion plans.

Several manufacturers in Taylor County are anxious to expand, as well, if the county and city of Perry can create a municipal wastewater system. The current plan is to try to get grant money to install a system near the airport, says Buddy Humphries, director of the Taylor County Economic Development Authority.

California's energy crisis has prompted the county to resurrect plans for recruiting a power plant. In the early 1980s, community leaders conducted a feasibility study to build a plant for Seminole Electric. Since Gov. Jeb Bush recently expressed an interest in preventing a California-like crisis, economic developers have dusted off the plan and are taking a new look.

"With this study, we have a two-year jump on other communities," says Humphries. Just building the plant would create about 2,000 jobs. After completion, he expects about 300 full-time positions.

Person to Watch
After 32 years with larger financial institutions, Edward Meggs Sr. opened Madison County Community Bank in 1998. He serves on eight boards and is the current president of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

Julie Bettinger can be reached by e-mail.Regional statistics, including population, income and labor information, are included in the print edition only. To order a print copy of the April issue, call (727) 821-5800. To subscribe to Florida Trend online, click here.

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