Jacksonville is headed for a major facelift, compliments of the Better Jacksonville Plan's half-cent sales tax that took effect Jan. 1. Four major projects have been given a green light:
A $95-million downtown library, plus $55 million for branch improvements.
A $190-million courthouse.
A $25-million, 12,000-seat minor league baseball park to replace Wolfson Park, built in 1955.
A $125-million sports and entertainment arena to replace the 40-year-old Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Groundbreaking on the ballpark and arena should start this summer. In addition, $1.5 billion of the $2.2 billion generated by the Better Jacksonville Plan, spearheaded by Mayor John Delaney, will fund transportation improvements such as road resurfacing and widening, drainage improvements and purchasing land for a rapid transit system.
As a result of all the construction, residents will have to brace themselves for even more traffic snarls, but Delaney says residents are prepared for the inconvenience. "When voters approved the Better Jacksonville Plan last year," he says, "they sent a strong message that they wanted to move this city forward on a number of fronts, and that they were willing to make that investment."
Delaney's former chief of staff, Susie Wiles, says passing the Better Jacksonville Plan speaks volumes about how Jacksonville sees itself. "Historically, I don't think people have viewed Northeast Florida as particularly progressive, but that myth was dispelled when we passed the Better Jacksonville Plan."
Also on the city's plate this year: Preparing for Super Bowl 2005. Mike Weinstein, executive director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, has been appointed to run Jacksonville's Super Bowl Host Committee.
People to Watch
While Susie Wiles has moved from City Hall to the private sector, she remains focused on public affairs. Wiles served as Mayor John Delaney's chief of staff from 1995 to 2000 before becoming chief operating officer at Jacksonville-based Vestcor Equities International. After a brief stint there, she started work at Washington, D.C.-based Apco Worldwide, an international public affairs firm, in its Jacksonville office -- just a stone's throw from City Hall.
Ronnie Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of the Jacksonville Housing Authority, helped raise the city's public housing from "poor performer" status, as rated by U.S. Housing and Urban Development in 1994, to its current "high performer" ranking. Ferguson now faces the daunting task of integrating Jacksonville's public housing neighborhoods.
Businesses to Watch
Landstar System, a transportation services company, employs about 850 in Jacksonville. Forbes listed Landstar on its Platinum 400 list for two years running, as one of America's top trucking companies. Landstar President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Crowe says the company's innovative business model will keep it successful despite "high fuel prices and a softer economy."
ParkerVision, which develops and produces wireless and video technology, is working with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce on a long-term plan to attract up to 200 specialized employees to develop its wireless projects.
According to the Jacksonville Port Authority, a record 5.29 million passengers used Jacksonville International Airport in 2000, up 6.7% from the 1999 total of 4.95 million. Air cargo fell 8.9%, from 147,711,754 pounds in 1999 to 134,306,809 pounds in 2000.
St. Augustine: Out of Reach
St. Augustine has long been celebrated for its rich history. But while tourists continue to flock to the city, some residents are feeling left out in the cold. The cost of rental property and homeownership makes living in St. Augustine difficult for many in its service-oriented economy.
"The struggle is for the native," says Rick Alder, administration manager for St. Augustine-based Tensolite Co., one of the city's top employers, with about 275 workers. "For somebody who went to high school in St. Augustine, going into marriage and thinking about homes and families, it's difficult for them to find housing that they're comfortable with."
St. Johns County ranks among the highest in the state in home prices, averaging more than $91,000 for a 1,200- to 1,600-sq.-ft. home.
The city, like many others in the state, also lacks an adequate workforce. City Manager William B. Harriss says that with unemployment rates dipping as low as 2.5%, employers are desperate to fill vacancies. Not only are better-paying jobs going unfilled, but fast-food and hotel jobs as well, he says.
To help relieve the workforce problem, St. Johns County is trying to recruit workers from outside the county. It's publicizing employment opportunities online.
And in an effort to provide more affordable rental properties to entice entry-level and service workers to the area, the county has been working with The Wilson Co., a Tampa developer. As a result of the partnership, a couple of affordable apartment complexes have been built: The 192-unit Whispering Pines and the 90-unit Woodcrest complex. Plans are in the works for a Whispering Woods complex as well. Monthly rents vary, but start as low as $235.
Person to Watch
Len Weeks was a St. Augustine city commissioner for six years and mayor for five. Now out of public office, Weeks has redirected his attention to Len Weeks Construction and several additional businesses in St. Augustine. He remains an active board member for several organizations, including the St. Augustine and St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce.
Businesses to Watch
World Golf Village Renaissance Resort started out with more of a whimper than a bang, but it's starting to recover. Jeff Johnsen became general manager last spring. Occupancy rates have risen 10% from 1999 to 2000, and bookings have tripled.
Tensolite makes insulated wires. Not exciting, perhaps, but those wires help make computers and airplanes function. The company, a subsidiary of Syracuse, N.Y.-based Carlisle Cos., employs about 275 and says it's in an acquisition mode.
According to the St. Johns County Property Appraiser's Office, the total appraised value of all real property in St. Augustine went from $639.4 million in 1998 to $850.3 million in 2000 -- up $211 million. However, the taxable real property went from $394.9 million in 1998 to $520.7 million -- up just $125 million.
With Nocatee knocking on the door of St. Johns County, the big question is whether area citizens want to open up. Nocatee is a proposed development of 15,000 acres, primarily in St. Johns County. (It includes 2,200 acres in Duval County.) The Davis family, founders of Winn-Dixie Stores, and affiliated corporations own the land and have hired The PARC Group of Jacksonville as developer.
The owners have received a zoning change from agricultural to "new town" to allow for commercial and residential use. Nicholas Meiszer, St. Johns County commissioner, says the "new town" designation essentially gives the developers flexibility to define zoning for the area.
Nocatee has plans for about 14,200 housing units, 700 hotel rooms, 4.2 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail space, 270 acres of parks and several golf courses, in addition to schools, a town center and roads for the 38,000 residents it expects within 25 years.
Plans also include a refuge on 2,400 acres along Talomato River and 4,700 acres of wetland and upland habitat. According to the Sierra Club, the land is home to gopher tortoises, American alligators, wood storks, bald eagles, Sherman's fox squirrels, white ibises, herons, egrets, manatees and Florida black bears.
Meiszer has come out against the Nocatee plan, citing his fears about urban sprawl and environmental harm. He also says housing may not be affordable to the average family in St. Johns County, resulting in residents who live in St. Johns but work in Duval County. "It will just be suburban Jacksonville," he says.
Person to Watch
New County Commissioner Nicholas Meiszer had been county administrator six years but left that post to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development in the former Soviet Union. There, he helped foster economic development in Albania, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Though he's worked in local government for more than 30 years, the county commission seat is his first elected post.
Business to Watch
Dominex, the largest eggplant processor in North America, employs about 70 and sells seasoned, coated, flash-frozen eggplant slices to retailers and restaurants across the country. President Jim Lacerenza says the rising popularity of vegetarianism and ethnic foods, and fears of mad cow disease, have helped his company grow.
The landscape of Nassau County is changing, particularly in rural Yulee, where big-name retailers are pushing for a place at the table. Plans for a Home Depot and Wal-Mart Supercenter are reportedly in the permitting stages, and Target and Lowe's are acquiring property in the area.
A wood-flooring manufacturer, funded by a European investor, is also making a move in Nassau. Florida Fine Flooring is expected to create a significant number of jobs. Two flexible-use buildings of 20,000 square feet each are being built in Yulee, in addition to several other business projects.
Nassau County encompasses 652 square miles, with its high-density population in the Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach areas. The Ritz-Carlton Resort and Amelia Island Plantation have become prime destinations for wealthy tourists. That in turn has swelled the permanent population there.
While residents of other areas might bristle at the influx of mega-stores, Yulee residents are generally pleased about the prospect, says Ken Willette, executive director of Nassau's Economic Development Board. Though retail jobs are not generally lucrative for residents, the big businesses diversify the tax base and provide valuable services to shoppers who otherwise might travel to Jacksonville for goods.
Person to Watch
As the president of Amelia Island Plantation, a 1,350-acre luxury resort, Jack Healan Jr. works on some of Florida's hottest real estate. Healan is also vice chairman of the Florida Commission on Tourism and chairman of Visit Florida Inc. He's working with the school district to establish a hospitality curriculum at Fernandina Beach High School.
Clay County wants its residents to stay put. Orien Pass, executive director for the Clay County Development Authority and Economic Development Council, says that 58% of the population leaves Clay County to work elsewhere, with 53% traveling to Duval. This has placed enormous traffic and transportation strains on the county and has prompted a movement to entice businesses into Clay County. As a result of tax incentives and intense lobbying, the county has recently attracted three big businesses to the area.
BellSouth was the first to make the move. The company plans to open a campus-type office setting on Fleming Island that will ultimately employ up to 1,000.
Soon after BellSouth's announcement, Nashville-based HCA -- The Healthcare Co., announced plans to move in this month with medical billings and claim processing offices in 80,000 square feet of new office space in Orange Park. The company estimates it will hire more than 500 people.
Finally, Fort Worth, Texas-based Americredit is building a $12-million facility on Fleming Island. According to Pass, Americredit will add 538 jobs to the area, with an average annual salary of $31,491. The average Clay County annual wage is $21,000.
Person to Watch
Rande LeFevre's day job is regional manager of corporate affairs for Atlanta-based BellSouth. LeFevre also serves as the chairman of Clay County's Economic Development Board and on a number of boards in Clay County and Jacksonville. Look for LeFevre to push for more business development in Clay County. "If you're prudent in your efforts to build appropriate to the available infrastructure, you shouldn't have the (overbuilding) worries that some areas of the country are going through," LeFevre says.
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.