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December 20, 2014

South Central: Growing Strong

Agricultural experience puts South Central Florida on the fast track to green energy success.

Gary Shepherd | 9/24/2009

South Central/ Heartland Florida
Demographics for the South Central/ Heartland Region can be found at Business Florida's interactive map of Florida.

Regional Assets

Universities/Colleges
• South Florida Community College

Airports
• Sebring Regional Airport

In the 5,000-square-mile, six-county South Central region, traditional agricultural products like sugar cane, citrus and cattle have long been the economic mainstays. Today, near the shores of America’s second largest lake — Okeechobee — new sources of sustainability are taking root.

First came nontraditional “ag” in the form of bee colonies, aquaculture, sod farms and greenhouses devoted to decorative horticulture and vineyards. Now, the focus is shifting to alternative energies, and as farmers region-wide experiment with the cultivation of biofuel crops, South Central Florida is on track to become a green energy capital.

With its subtropical climate, abundant natural resources and local talent eager to apply their agricultural skills, this region can “lead the state in production of renewable energy,” says Dr. John Alleyne, director of Highlands County Cooperative Extension Service. Toward that goal, Highlands County hosted its first carbon credit workshop in May 2009 to explore carbon credit opportunities and provide information about carbon sequestration.

Elsewhere in the region, green capitalism is already earning profits. At its 14,000-square-foot facility near the Labelle Municipal Airport in Hendry County, RKO Industries Inc. makes railroad ties from used agricultural plastics such as plant-cover films and irrigation tubing. “We keep about 20 to 25 million pounds of plastic out of Hendry County and other landfills every year,” says the firm’s CEO Rex Crick. “For every four railroad ties that we produce, one tree is saved.”


Alan Shaffer, left, and Wayne Heskew check the progress of recently planted eucalyptus seedlings, which will be used by 7L Brands to make environmentally friendly mulch. [Photo: 7L Brands LLC]
After signing a $3-million contract with the U.S. Army and a $5-million deal with BNSF Railway Company, RKO Industries and sister firm Recycle Technologies International Inc. doubled their workforce in 2009. Together, the companies now have more than 50 employees who produce as many as 500 PermaTie railroad ties per day.

Crick’s companies have had a lot of local help since landing in Hendry County in 2004, including economic aid in the form of expedited permitting, loans and fiscal incentives. More recently, RKO/RTI has had help in pursuing tax exemptions for electricity use and equipment purchases.

Workforce training aid has flowed in, too, from the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board. Under the board’s “Employed Worker Training” program, RKO/RTI will be reimbursed $76,000 for lean manufacturing, safety and ISO 9000 workforce training programs completed in 2009.

“Ultimately, we do this for job creation,” says Jim Wall, development director for the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board. “Training makes employees more valuable, and normally we reimburse 100% of training costs.” In turn, Hendry County’s economy benefits from the monthly payroll of $120,000 that his company generates, says Crick.

Tags: Central, Business Florida

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