Around the State
FRANKLIN COUNTY -- A countywide gas tax went into effect this year. Approved in 1997 by the Franklin County Commission, the new tax means residents have to pay another 9 cents on the dollar for each gallon of gas pumped at county service stations. Local station owners say customers are now driving to neighboring Gulf, Liberty and Wakulla counties to fill up; sales in Franklin are down as much as 30%.
LYNN HAVEN -- DeLand-based BSG Laboratories will begin building a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the city's commerce park in March. Officials at BSG, which makes consumer and professional sound systems, say they picked Bay County in part because of the large number of engineers at the U.S. Navy's Coastal Systems Station in nearby Panama City Beach. The company will employ more than 90 people by the end of the year, and another 100 by the end of 1999.
MARIANNA -- Jackson County Commissioners agreed to issue a $10 million tax-exempt bond to help Chiron Corp. speed development of a proposed $52 million executive resort in nearby Blue Springs. The resort would employ 160 initially and eventually as many as 600.
OKALOOSA COUNTY -- Recruiting commercial aviation companies will be the Okaloosa County Economic Development Council's prime target for 1998. Director Larry Sassano says a skilled labor force is already available for aviation firms because of the presence of Eglin Air Force Base.
PANAMA CITY -- BellSouth plans to open a National Directory Assistance (NDA) center in an existing BellSouth building here. The center is expected to employ 150 ultimately and to be operating by May. At that time, BellSouth callers dialing 411 will be able to get a directory listing for anyone, anywhere in the U.S. BellSouth has a second NDA in Fort Pierce.
Wichita, Kansas-based Restaurants of NFL opened its sixth Semolina International Pasta restaurant and hired more than 100 people. The restaurant occupies 5,000 square feet of a former outlet center in the city's main retail corridor. The company plans to open four more restaurants in Ocala, Gainesville, Tampa and Jacksonville.
Officials with the Panama City-Bay County International Airport may abandon plans to extend the main runway an additional 2,200 feet because of protests by local environmental groups. Instead, the airport will consider building a new, larger, regional airport in the unincorporated area of the county.
PENSACOLA BEACH -- Santa Rosa Island residents are appealing a November legal decision that dismissed a suit they had filed to block development of up to eight 21-story condos. The property has been zoned for high-density residential development since the 1970s.
TALLAHASSEE -- City and Leon County leaders hope to make residents more informed when it comes to economic development by offering a free course. The class, which will meet once a month from April through July, is sponsored by the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department.
Tallahassee Ford, the city's largest automobile dealership, Tallahassee Mitsubishi and Tallahassee Chrysler-Plymouth have agreed to be purchased by Republic Industries. The deal is expected to close later this year.
Jacksonville's Downtown ...
... is on the upswing as companies migrate in from the suburbs, lured by public incentives and a desire to avoid snarled rush-hour traffic in the clogged southern business district. "Downtown is definitely on a comeback track," says Oliver Barakat, an associate at CB Commercial Real Estate Group. Vacancy rates downtown dropped to 13.24% at the end of 1997, the lowest in a decade, according to CB Commercial. That's down from a peak 22.4% vacancy in 1994.
Among new downtown residents: Humana Inc., finalizing the purchase of the largely vacant 23-story Jacksonville Center at 76 S. Laura St., expects to move its 1,200 employees in from suburban offices in late spring and add 300 new downtown workers by July. And AccuStaff Inc., a temporary staffing and outsourcing agency, recently became the marquee tenant in the 37-foot skyline office tower at One Independent Drive. During the next two years, AccuStaff plans to add 100 new workers to the 160 staffers already downtown. The building's owner, Highwoods Properties, is completing a $15 million facelift to attract more tenants.
Expect the first major addition to the skyline in about two years when a 22-story, 400-room hotel goes up next to the Prime Osborn Convention Center. The $52 million project got a $17.7 million injection from City Hall, which recently moved itself off attractive riverfront property into a $25 million renovated department store several blocks north.
Migration downtown isn't happening by chance. The city and state are doling out incentives for new downtown workers. For instance, AccuStaff will receive $5,300 for each new downtown job it creates beyond its original staff. The city contributes 20% and the rest comes from state coffers. Also, Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney set aside $250,000 to design a downtown master plan. The new Downtown Development Authority head, Paul Krutko, was picked for his track record in generating housing in downtown Cleveland.
-- Jane Tanner
Putting A Port ...
... in Port St. Joe may be closer to reality thanks to Gulf County's largest employer, Florida Coast Paper Co. For the first time in 14 years, the company is exporting linerboard and bag paper to Europe. Florida Coast, a joint venture of Chicago-based Stone Container Corp. and Box USA of Valhalla, N.Y., ships from the docks behind its paper mill. Other companies used to make arrangements with Florida Coast to use its docks, says St. Joe Harbormaster Billy Howell, but the uptick in Florida Coast's shipping activity has the Port St. Joe business community talking about developing its own port and having a stake in global trade. Officials at Florida Coast say it will continue to use its own docks.
While Port St. Joe established a port authority some 20 years ago, the city has virtually no port facilities, in part because it does not own the adjacent land, which belongs to Jacksonville-based St. Joe Corp. The natural, deep water harbor near the city is ideal for a port, according to Tamara Laine, executive director at the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce. "It's an enormous asset to have," she says. Also favoring port development is proximity to the Intracoastal Waterway. "We have a canal that connects right to it," Laine says, adding that the only thing standing in the way is getting enough property on which to build facilities.
The authority has more than $3 million in its coffers to buy property and build up the port. Tommy Pitts, port authority vice chairman, says land negotiations with St. Joe Corp. should start soon. Then the authority will look into developing an industrial park and providing a rail spur.
-- Matt Moore