October 31, 2014

Northeast

Jane Tanner | 4/1/2000
Jacksonville/Duval County: Roadwork

No one is immune to traffic headaches. Aage Schroder, state Department of Transportation's top representative in Northeast Florida, sees the problems first hand.

When he moved to Orange Park 11 years ago, his commute to the downtown Jacksonville DOT office took 25 minutes. Now, it's 40 minutes -- on a good day. "It has taken me as much as an hour and 20 minutes," Schroder says, "I get tired of it."

The worst traffic spot in Jacksonville, the Interstate 95/Interstate 10 interchange through which 150,000 cars squeeze each day, is a stone's throw from Schroder's office. In his conference room, away from the fumes and muttering drivers, he points to spots on a giant map showing the metropolitan area's most critical roadwork needs. The price tag: $2.7 billion. Next to it is a second map, reflecting a projects that would be covered by a more realistic funding level of $1.2 billion.

Even that level of funding is uncertain, however, and city leaders are reviewing a plan to quickly raise $800 million to accelerate roadwork. Fixing the I-95/I-10 junction alone, for instance, will cost $200 million. The need is critical enough that Gov. Jeb Bush has put the project on the state's fast-track list.

Traffic problems emerged here for the usual reasons: Competing interests -- developers, businesses, residents, politicians, environmentalists and so on -- frustrated the city's efforts to plan ahead. At times, Jacksonville officials just covered their eyes and let development march on. In one case, city officials lost state funding and added to the clogging of Butler Boulevard, the main drag in the busy southside business district, by using lower 1993 traffic counts and ignoring a 1995 update.

Butler is just one on a long list of corridors that need help. Others include another artery to the beaches, widening I-95 from the Georgia line down through Flagler County, conduits from Jacksonville deep into Clay County on the west and northern St. Johns County on the east, and another bridge across the St. Johns River between the Fuller Warren Bridge on I-95 and the Buckman Bridge 15 miles to the south.

For now, there's little relief in sight. Using high-tech gadgets to work in your car only helps a little. "Regardless of whether you have a telephone and fax in the car, it's still a hassle," Schroder says.

Businesses to Watch

The Jacksonville office of Nexgenix Inc., an Irvine, Calif.-based e-business consulting firm, is the base for all its Florida operations. The office here went from two employees in 1997 to 50 now, with more growth expected this year.

Maxwell House Coffee Co. has been roasting and grinding coffee in downtown Jacksonville since 1910. With new housing under construction downtown, will the aromatic plant fit in with a growing residential community?

A spokesperson with owner Kraft Foods says the company is sensitive to the changing environment and will try to be as compatible as it can be.

People to Watch

Alberta Hipps, a nurse with an MBA, was an administrator at St. Vincent's Medical Center when she was elected to represent the westside on the Jacksonville City Council in 1995. Her influence has grown, and she's likely to become president of the city council next month.

Sam Taylor, 43, is founder and publisher of Jacksonville's free alternative newspaper, FolioWeekly. Circulation and readership are growing in an otherwise one-newspaper town. A readership audit last winter rated the edgy weekly that rankles powers-that-be above all sections of The Florida Times-Union except the front section.

Affordability

The median home price in Jacksonville is $90,383, but median figures have limited meaning in this sprawling city with drastically diverse neighborhoods. The median home price is $50,675 on the city's northside, $123,933 at the beaches, and in Deerwood, a gated community, it's $168,280. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment averages $625; the beaches are more expensive, averaging $771.

Orange Park: "Saturated"

In the early 1960s, Orange Park was a sleepy village centered at the corner of Kingsley Avenue and U.S. Highway 17 in the northeast corner of Clay County. But as neighboring Jacksonville began to sprawl, many who worked in the city found Orange Park's setting idyllic.Bulldozers and builders came barreling down U.S. 17 and Blanding Boulevard during the '70s and '80s, and in the '90s growth heated up further. Even as the commute time to jobs in Jacksonville increased, people still flocked to Orange Park's suburban lifestyle. But now, City Manager John Bowles figures, it has to slow down. "We're saturated," he says.

Traffic has increased dramatically, making roads the main issue for the community. City and county officials are scrambling for road-improvement funds. The sales tax, at 7%, is already half-a-cent higher than Duval County's. The tax base, consisting almost entirely of property taxes, lacks enough businesses.

From 1980 to 1990, the population of greater Orange Park grew from 30,000 to 50,000. Last year, it was up to about 80,000, Bowles says.

Businesses to Watch

Quantum Engineering, designer and manufacturer of railroad electronics, relocated to Orange Park from Duval County six years ago because top executives lived in Clay County and wanted to stop commuting. Since the move, it has grown from about 25 employees to about 50, with more growth planned.

Crawford Homes Inc. has prospered from Clay County's housing boom. Dave Crawford started building homes here in 1975, when he and a partner put up 25 houses. Now in business with his son, Michael, and his wife, Nancy, he expects to build 300 houses this year.

People to Watch

Virginia Steinmetz, 33, is a first-term city councilwoman in Green Cove Springs. Political rumors have her aspiring to the state Legislature, but she says she hasn't decided. The mother of two young children, Steinmetz is the daughter of J.P. Hall Jr., a powerful landholder. She runs the family's charitable arm, J.P. Hall Sr. Children's Charity.

Ted McGowan, 41, heads Clay County Port Inc., a private industrial park along the St. Johns River that's home to about 40 small manufacturers. He took over the business park at the end of 1998 after 13 years in real estate development with St. Joe Co. McGowan is heading a group charged with recruiting new businesses to the county.

Affordability

The median home price is $109,000. Most growth is outside Orange Park city limits. In Fleming Island's booming communities, the median home price of $160,000 is the highest in Clay County.

County Outlook

St. Johns

In some ways, Pat Hamilton is an unlikely antagonist for developers in St. Johns County.

The Crescent Beach resident is a Realtor who does residential and commercial deals with the county's who's- who, and he's an active Rotarian. But for a long time he has battled to preserve the pristine beauty of the area and to protect wildlife along the Intracoastal Waterway.

In a recent battle, he, his brother and his father sued the state Department of Transportation and the county over sewer lines intended to serve a highway rest stop on I- 95 south of County Road 206. Hamilton contends the lines went beyond the needs of a rest stop and could serve a community of some 30,000 -- growth that's not in long-range plans. Hamilton says his desire to slow growth isn't incompatible with business goals. "It's a long-term business view," he says, "If you destroy the natural system, you diminish your life."

Another hot development-vs.-preservation flash point is wetland buffers: Environmentalists want them increased from the current 50 feet to as wide as 300. Developers say that's ridiculous.

Next November, residents likely will vote on a proposal to raise the county's sales tax a penny to 7 cents on the dollar. Under one proposal, half the new income would go toward purchasing land for preservation, the rest for roadwork -- the county needs $80 million just to start playing catch-up. But Hamilton says he won't support it. He doesn't want more roads.

Business to Watch
Northrop Grumman St. Augustine Corp.'s aircraft rework facilities are a prime source of high-paying jobs in a county economy swamped by housing construction and tourism. With another Northrop Grumman aircraft rework operation 50 miles north at Cecil Commerce Center, people worry the St. Augustine shop will be merged into Jacksonville's. A company spokesman says the cost of moving the production lines makes a merger highly unlikely, even in the long-term.

Clay

For decades, Clay County has ridden the coattails of neighboring Jacksonville's growth. But life as a bedroom community for big brother Jacksonville has lost its luster. Roadways are clogged. The main corridors, Blanding Boulevard and U.S. 17, are jammed and can't be widened. A new Branan Field-Chaffee roadway, a third north-south route, won't offer any relief. As soon as the cement dries on the two-lane road in a few years, traffic will hit the state maximum capacity.
At the present rate, about 80% of Clay's population will be outbound commuters by 2010.

Government and business leaders are desperate to create jobs at home. While the population has jumped to 143,575, job growth has slowed. The county is packaging some public incentives. But the big selling point to would-be employers, officials say, is a large, skilled labor pool of residents who'd rather work close to home than endure commuter traffic.

Nassau

Florida's northeastern-most county is growing. New condos and homes for the wealthy on Amelia Island, new middle and upper-income housing off the island, and lots of new retail shops to serve the growing population. Locals invite the growth, with some reservations. They worry about losing the charm that drew them in the first place. "We don't want A1A to become the Cassat Avenue of Nassau County," says Chamber of Commerce President Harry Halley, speaking of one of Duval County's main roadways that has become shorthand for a roadway cluttered with retail chains, a blur of lighted signs and storefronts.

Halley is from Jacksonville, but spent his career as a top administrator at the University of Pennsylvania's hospital and medical school before retiring to Amelia Island. He's part of a group analyzing Nassau County's quality-of-life issues in hopes of controlling growth.

Business to Watch
After timber giant Rayonier added to its holdings with the purchase of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. land last year, it became Nassau's largest landowner with about 160,806 acres, 40.6% of the county. Through its Rayland division, about 5,000 acres are being sold to commercial developers. But the company insists it is committed to timber for the long haul.

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