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North Central: All Systems Are Go for Growth

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Not only is necessity the mother of invention, it can also be the catalyst for creating new business. Consider, for example, the case of Gate Petroleum Company. In summer 2006, the rising cost of crude oil spurred this Jacksonville-based petroleum marketer to look at other sources for fuel. As a result, the company's subsidiary, Gate Ethanol LLC, is bringing an ethanol production facility to Hamilton County, just north of White Springs, in Florida's North Central region. Construction is expected to begin in March 2007, with ethanol shipping from Hamilton County by May 2008.

The $105 million project will turn corn, brought by rail from the Midwest, into 30 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol annually. The Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners welcomed the company to the area with nearly $5 million in tax abatement and $5.7 million in cash over 10 years. Hamilton County has also committed to work with the town of White Springs for water tie-in services. In addition, the county is assisting with grant applications to fund construction of additional traffic lanes on U.S. 41 north and south of the plant's entrance. The new facility will create 52 jobs with an annual payroll of $2.7 million. Gate Petroleum is also applying for Qualified Target Industry (QTI) Tax Refund dollars and assistance with streamlined permitting.

Facts & Figures
Population 3,018,742
Labor Force 1,527,289
Households 1,165,800
AVG Household EBI $48,048
Consumer Spending $50.94 bil.
Total Retail Sales $43.55 bil.

Universities/Colleges
- Beacon College -Bethune-Cookman College
- Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
- Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences
- Florida Institute of Technology
- Full Sail Real World Education
- Rollins College
- Stetson University
- University of Central Florida ______________________________

Community Colleges
- Brevard Community College
- Daytona Beach Community College
- Lake Sumter Community College
- Seminole Community College
- Valencia Community College ______________________________

Airports
- Daytona Beach International Airport
- Melbourne International Airport
- Orlando International Airport
- Orlando Sanford International Airport ______________________________

Seaports
- Port Canaveral ______________________________

Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Demographics USA 2005, TradeDimensions International Inc.; Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. EBI = effective buying/disposable income.

"We are grateful for the warm reception we have received in Hamilton County," says R.B. "Buzz" Hoover, president of Gate Ethanol LLC. "The investment we are making in this area will be great for our future business. The jobs we will provide and other goods and services we will consume will be a big boost for this area--it's a win-win situation!"

With its more than 225 company-owned and dealer service station/convenience stores stretching from Flo-rida to Kentucky, Gate Petroleum is one of the highest volume retailers in the Southeast. It plans to purchase all of the ethanol produced by its subsidiary in Hamilton County.

Geographically, Hamilton County makes good sense for Gate's ethanol site. "We needed rail access to accommodate the approximately 65 rail cars of corn each week," Hoover explains.

"We also needed infrastructure to easily transport the ethanol to our Orlando and Jacksonville retail markets, as well as the truckloads of wood chips that will be delivered to the plant each week. The access Hamilton County has with the railroads and I-75 and its proximity to I-10 made it a great choice."

The 70-acre site will include six integrated manufacturing buildings as well as an administrative office building. Six deep wells will pump the 600,000 gallons of water needed each day for the plant. At the same time, less than 200,000 gallons of wastewater will be generated daily and sent to retention or percolation ponds.

Proximity to four major universities makes the North Central region prime for research facilities.

All of the energy for the plant will be produced by four gasifier/boiler units, which will burn more than 500 tons of wood chips each day. No fossil fuels will be used, and Gate Ethanol has committed to removing any pollutants from the smoke produced by the heat/power plant.

The company has also invested in a process patented by Greenstock Resources to make the most out of every single kernel of corn.

"Traditional ethanol plants take the most starch-enriched kernels and discard the rest," says Hoover. "Our process will put those highest starch kernels into the ethanol stream and use the rest for other marketable by-products such as high-end dog food, unrefined corn oil and carbon dioxide."

The arrival of Gate Ethanol is just the beginning for this 13-county area.

Build it, they will come

In Marion County, Jorge Gutman's "Field of Dreams" is an urbanized downtown for Ocala that will blend retail shops with residential dwellings and commercial office space. Marion County, the southernmost county in the region, is known for its horse industry and the natural beauty of its springs and trails. Ocala's quaint downtown had been home to retailers for years, but when shopping in the area moved out to the mall on Highway 200, so did some downtown retailers. Gutman's Company, JJH Investments, plans to revive Ocala's downtown.

"There are companies out there looking for a place like Ocala," he says. "This community is made up of intelligent, hard-working, caring people. Many want to bring back the charm of our downtown areas and provide a way for people to live, work and shop in an urban, yet quaint setting. Ocala is a perfect place for that to happen."

Gutman received $1.5 million from the city of Ocala toward the development's $20 million first phase, which will include a 40,000-square-foot retail center and a parking garage with 250 spaces. The second phase will feature a conversion of the former Sprint building to a residential mix of 10 townhouses and 28 condominiums.

"This will be a great destination for companies to have corporate offices where employees live, walk to work, shop and dine," Gutman says.

Furthermore, the developer is willing to back up his sales pitch with support for the right company. He is currently working with local economic development officers to entice a world-renowned research facility to locate in Ocala.

"I consider it a great opportunity to do what I can to help the right company come to Ocala. I am committed to offsetting rent and working with them however I can to make the deal work," he says.

Gutman is hopeful that his mixed-use development will be the catalyst for attracting high-tech researchers. Proximity to the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of North Florida and University of Central Florida is an added incentive.

Partnering for the future

Having a well-trained workforce is critical to this region's growth, and with that in mind, Marion Technical Institute (MTI) in Ocala has launched a new approach to education and employment preparation.

Building on partnerships among the Marion County Public Schools, the CLM Workforce Connection and private businesses, the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) spearheaded the creation of a high school where education meets experience. Students are offered a strong academic curriculum in conjunction with academy courses in the areas of automotive, building construction, business and finance, culinary arts, industrial engineering technology and information technology. The results have been significant--a 22% increase in the graduation rate above the district average; a 66% placement of graduates in training-related jobs; an 88% certification rate (industry-specific); and a 42% increase in academy enrollment for the fall 2006 term. The business community loves it.

"MTI is a way for us to 'grow our own' employees," says Brian O'Connor, MTI Advisory Committee chair and manager of Lockheed-Martin Ocala Operations. "The opportunities are endless for these students. They are able to pave their way toward college if they choose, or immediately start their careers. As employers, we are able to work with the student interns and cultivate some of the most desirable traits early. MTI works with the students on employability skills and getting industry-specific certifications to give them the most marketable skills when entering the workplace. It's a win-win all the way around."

The success of MTI in cultivating a workforce has garnered attention statewide and nationally. In June 2006, at the CHOICE/Workforce Summit, MTI was recognized as the first official replication site of the CHOICE model, which originated in Okaloosa County. MTI was one of six sites awarded startup funding from Workforce Florida Inc. to replicate the CHOICE model. The school was also honored in mid-2006 by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as an effective "E-3 Partnership" that is committed to embracing and installing a demand-driven culture in the publicly funded workforce system. DOL defines a "demand-driven culture" as one which responds directly to business needs and prepares workers for good jobs in the fastest growing careers.

Meanwhile, in Alachua County, the Builders Association of North Central Florida (BANCF) is partnering with Alachua County's school system, Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) and the National Center for Construction Education and Research to create a dual-enrollment construction academy.

Jim Painter, president of BANCF, has long recognized the need for just such a partnership. "We've tried things before to get our younger students prepared for career paths and trades. It seemed the stars were all aligned to make it happen this time. This has been a wonderful partnership with tremendous opportunities for students and great potential for employers."

The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce/Council for Economic Outreach (CEO) has also pulled partners together to support a strategic initiative toward expansion, workforce development and attraction of new businesses. The program, called Opportunity 2010, is the sequel to the successful Competitive Edge, a similar investor-supported CEO program which brought 3,530 new jobs, 46 new businesses, and $175 million in new capital investment to the area from 2001 to 2005. Opportunity 2010 has more than $3 million pledged over five years from private and public sectors to continue this effort.

In addition, Sallie Mae, the nation's leading provider of education funding, has announced that it will open a new location in Gainesville. The facility will house 100 loan-servicing employees and bring the company's total employment in the Sunshine State to more than 1,300.

"We are delighted to increase our investment in Florida," says Renee Mang, senior vice president, Sallie Mae. "Sallie Mae has already experienced tremendous success at our current facility in Panama City, and we are confident the region's talented workforce will make Gainesville another great Sallie Mae Florida home."

Preparing for growth

Rural counties in the region are preparing for future economic activity, too. The governor's "Roadmap for Florida's Future: 2004-2009 Strategic Plan for Economic Development" calls for the implementation of an economic stimulus strategy for three Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern (RACEC). Fourteen counties comprise the North Central Florida RACEC: Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Putnam, Suwannee, Taylor and Union.

The RACEC Economic Development Catalyst Project is designed to gather economic intelligence in order to target industries of the future and go to market with a regional catalytic site. Project success will mean high-value jobs, capital investment and an economic ripple effect throughout the region. Jim Poole, executive director of the Lake City-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, is excited about the prospects for growth. "This coordinated effort should help us level the playing field to compete with some of the larger communities for companies bringing jobs. A workforce of 10,000 seems low, but when we combine efforts and you see the possibility of drawing from an area of 400,000 workers, the possibilities are more promising."

In preparation, Madison County has completed an expansion of water and sewer lines from the municipalities to the I-10 interchanges, and Suwannee County is working on infrastructure improvements between the U.S. 129 corridor and I-75. The recent addition of a new Lowe's and expansion of the Goldkist plant have sparked additional growth in the area.

Dixie, Gilchrist and Levy counties are looking to capitalize on the area's natural beauty and grow ecotourism with a recent grant aimed at promoting "Florida's Pure Water Wilderness," a 2,000-square-mile, three-county cluster of pristine lakes, ponds, creeks, springs, rivers and Gulf of Mexico coastline.

The tri-county tourism board has leveraged support from state partners including Visit Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to enhance its tourism effort.

-- Ginger Broslat