Lake County economic developers lured the company in, then spit it out.
But while Hess spent many hours with regional and local economic developers, as well as city and county staff, most local elected officials didn’t know about the plan.
When the plan finally went public, the public went ballistic. Water-supply problems in the county are more than obvious: The same epic drought that’s gripping the rest of Florida and the Southeast has reduced its beautiful namesake lakes to puddles. The idea of a bottler tapping the county’s most important resource created what longtimers say was the loudest — and broadest — public outcry in memory.
The elected officials, including a county commissioner who had met with Hess and supported Niagara’s plans, got the water religion. Two months after Hess closed on the property, Lake County commissioners unanimously voted down Niagara’s incentive package. Groveland city commissioners, meanwhile, unanimously denied the company’s request for the sanitary sewer connection that’s crucial to Niagara’s operations.
On the q.t.
Supply Line: California-based Niagara Bottling — a $300-million, family-owned company — produces private-label bottled water for Costco, Albertsons and many Vegas casinos. [Photo courtesy Niagara Bottling]
The issue, elected officials say, is not economic development or growth vs. no growth. It’s water. Lake County is front and center in Florida’s water crisis: Water managers have told local officials they must find and fund alternative sources by 2013, when population growth will outstrip sustainable groundwater supply. The county has been warring with neighboring developments, including The Villages, over permits to pump groundwater and over possible diversions of surface water. “The idea of having a company mine our water resources and ship them out of the county when we are asking people to conserve and pay for alternative sources is just ridiculous,” says Lake County Commissioner Elaine Renick.