Lake County economic developers lured the company in, then spit it out.
Water Torture: Niagara Bottling went “from hero to zero — overnight,” says Brian Hess, director of operations. “It is the absolute most unfair thing I’ve ever seen.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
In the e-mail, Hess explained his need for industrial space close to highways, and he outlined what Niagara could offer in return: Total capital investment of about $100 million, 200 new jobs within five years and one of the cleanest manufacturing operations around.
Florida’s economic developers, Hess says, were the most aggressive and the most professional respondents. Enterprise Florida and the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, he says, jumped on his project and didn’t rest until they found the right spot: Lake County, to the west of Orlando, with a tax base that’s 80% residential and 20% commercial, was looking to diversify its economy and create jobs. The county is convenient to Florida’s Turnpike and other highways and has ample industrial space.
Officials with both the Metro Orlando EDC and the Lake County Economic Growth & Redevelopment office courted Hess vigorously. They held out the prospect of $2.2 million in local tax abatements and economic incentives. State officials offered upward of $800,000 in highway improvements. In May, Hess put in an order for $35 million in new bottling equipment, to be ready this spring. In September, he bought a $15-million property in the Christopher C. Ford Commerce Park just outside Groveland.
Before closing, Hess says, he had meetings with about a dozen different local officials to make sure he could build the plant. They included the county manager, county planning and zoning officials and utility officials with the city of Groveland, from which Hess expected to buy water. Lake County planners gave Hess written confirmation that his plant conformed to all zoning and land-use regulations. Not only could he get a permit, the county officials told him, but they would help him expedite it.