Plum Creek Timber owns the site and will develop the inland port. [Photo: Colin Hackley/Plum Creek/Columbia County IDA]
Off U.S. Highway 90 outside Columbia County's Lake City, a big white sign stands incongruously in front of a forest of young pine trees: "Future Site of Inland Port." After years of work, the state and 14 counties launched the 2,500-acre industrial-development project this fall to create a catalyst for business investment in a region that suffered low wages and high unemployment rates well before the economic downturn.
Despite its location at the crossroads of Interstates 75 and 10, with rail spurs that link up to CSX and Norfolk Southern, Lake City has never attracted much industry. The region's business and civic leaders hope to change the area's fortunes by focusing their energy on one major inland port project rather than scattershot economic development efforts.
While this year's Legislature funneled $300,000 for engineering and site work, the inland port would not have taken root without Plum Creek Timber, the largest private landowner in the United States and the largest in Florida. Seattle-based Plum Creek owns the site and surrounding land and will develop the port as its first master-planned industrial project in the United States.
Plum Creek and regional leaders hope the flow of international goods through the Port of Jacksonville will increase after the Panama Canal expands, prompting manufacturing, logistics and other businesses to look for less-expensive, less-congested industrial sites with access to consumer markets in Florida and beyond.
Several other northeast Florida projects have the same idea. But Todd Powell, director of real estate for Plum Creek Florida, says Lake City's unique designation as both a Regional Area of Critical Economic Concern and an Enterprise Zone gives it an edge on state tax and development incentives, aimed at bringing higher-paying jobs to a region that desperately needs them. State and local officials also have anticipated workforce needs: Columbia High School this fall launches a logistics/distribution academy; and the local community college, recently renamed Florida Gateway College, houses the Employ Florida Banner Center for Logistics & Distribution.
Crystal Sircy, senior vice president of business retention and recruitment at Enterprise Florida, says the competition is not so much among northeast Florida's inland port projects as it is between Florida and other states and nations. "Success," she says, "is not mutually exclusive."
Todd Powell [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]