October 31, 2014

Employment

Ocala's 'Economic Catastrophe'

Cynthia Barnett | 10/1/2009


Federal agents raided Taylor, Bean & Whitaker offices in August.
These days, talking to Pete Tesch, president and CEO of the Ocala/Marion County EDC, is a lot like talking to an emergency-management official in the wake of a hurricane.

In August, Ocala-based mortgage giant Taylor, Bean & Whitaker closed and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after the Federal Housing Administration barred it from making loans that the agency insures. Federal agents had earlier raided the company’s offices as part of an investigation into fraud.

In an instant, the area lost a top five private employer and more than 1,000 white-collar jobs.

Marion County, a hot spot for housing-related manufacturing during the real estate boom, was already suffering more acutely in the economic downturn than the rest of Florida. The county’s unemployment rate had risen to 12.6% as companies such as cabinet maker Merillat Industries, Georgia-Pacific plywood and Universal Forest Products laid off workers. The Taylor Bean layoffs are expected to push unemployment past 14%. “We have a full-blown economic catastrophe on our hands,” Tesch says.

The ripple effects are more than ripples. Taylor Bean Chairman Lee Farkas owns a half-dozen other businesses in town, from mortgage-related entities to restaurants. His Maslow Insurance, Security One Valuation Services and Clear Title all closed the same day as Taylor Bean.

The companies also were important centerpieces of revitalization in Ocala, with new buildings on former brownfields sites. Taylor Bean’s headquarters, for example, was a former meatpacking plant.

Non-profit officials say the impact on local philanthropy will be considerable. Taylor Bean had a foundation that contributed generously and broadly. Farkas’ personal donations were significant, too; he saved at least two non-profit entities from closing, the historic Marion Theater downtown and the Humane Society of Marion County. The city is working to rescind a Farkas subsidiary’s lease on the theater after three months of unpaid rent.

In the wake of the economic disaster, state House Speaker Larry Cretul, an Ocala Republican, helped pull together an emergency gathering of business leaders — including Florida CFO Alex Sink and John Adams, CEO of Enterprise Florida — to discuss the county’s plight. But the focus has had an unintended effect: It created a rift in the community, where there’s a sense that Taylor Bean employees are getting more help than 16,000 other workers unemployed before the company shut down.

Economic development and workforce officials are working to “stabilize and triage these dislocated workers and the 16,000 other unemployed people in the county,” Tesch says. The local workforce board is in discussions with the U.S. Department of Labor on a $1.6-million national emergency grant and has received $200,000 from Workforce Florida to provide services and training to laid-off workers.. Tesch’s office is also working with Enterprise Florida to re-evaluate about a dozen business prospects that are on the fence about Ocala “to see what we can do to bring them back to the table or renegotiate incentives,” Tesch says.

Tags: Northeast, Banking & Finance

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