by John M. Dunn
Updated 4 yearss ago
Grappling with Growth
The north central region boasts beautiful rolling hills, vast public forests, abundant water sources, scenic coasts and the cultural amenities of the University of Florida. The region's attractiveness, - The 65+ population in Alachua and Union counties is less than 10%. Only four counties have single-digit percentages of 65+ population. The state average is 17.6%. though, invites steady population growth and controversy over quality-of-life issues."
In Alachua County, "the community is awash in vast imported development projects, increasing industrial pollution and leaping land development," says Alachua County Commissioner Penny Wheat. There is also a "viable, but diminished, public perception," she says, "that we ought not to follow Florida's other metropolitan areas in the expensive abyss of 'planned' chaos -- growth for growth's sake."
Major east/west corridors crossing with I-75 continue to attract major distribution centers. The latest was Wal-Mart, which first investigated Ocala's horse country for a new site and then left abruptly last summer amid controversy to set up operations in the city of Alachua.
"The overall issue," says Eric Bredfeldt, Gaines-ville's economic development director, "is that there's got to be a general consensus over what economic development really means."
The region's two urban centers are opposites. Ocala has a diversified economy, strong manufacturing base, lots of retirees and a workforce in need of development. Alachua, Florida's youngest county, depends narrowly on government and the University of Florida for employment. Here, underemployment is a chronic problem for the highly educated.
Elsewhere in the region, a lack of infrastructure and manufacturing forces many locals to seek work in prisons and the retirement-driven service sector.
KEY TREND: For years, Gaines-ville city planners and others took pride in promoting multiuse, pedestrian-friendly downtown renovations that retained the city's red-bricked charm. That work is now at odds with Boca Raton developers Marvin and Ben Schachter's proposed Midtown project: Three 23-story buildings providing retail and office space, a garage, a luxury hotel and 532 apartment units for 1,500 students. Though the $300-million to $500-million project is expected to dramatically alter Gainesville's cityscape, it would also reduce urban sprawl by enabling many UF students to walk to school instead of commute.
BUSINESSES TO WATCH: U.S. Lithium Energetics bought a 90,000-sq.-ft. Moltech Power Corp. plant that had been idle since 1996 and plans to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for cell phones and other hand-held electronic devices. The company expects to employ 30 to 50. Meanwhile, Shanghai Huayi Co. of China has bought out financially troubled Moltech and plans to employ 100 to manufacture rechargeable batteries. Another 700 may be added in the next two years. ... Gainesville-based Exactech, a manufacturer of orthopedic implant devices, continues to command attention as it builds a $4-million, 30,000-sq.-ft. expansion and adds 110 employees.
PERSON TO WATCH: "East Gainesville has been the forgotten part of the city for the past 20 years," says Whit Blanton, a consultant with the Orlando-based Renaissance Planning Group. Blanton hopes a new report he compiled will "redirect economic development" to the city's east side. Among other things, the former Gainesville journalist proposes creating an "employment center" with hotels, retail space, a conference center and a distribution center near the
KEY TREND: Institutional upgrade is under way in Ocala. The public library is getting a $3.5-million overhaul. As city officials negotiate with California consultants to give the downtown a makeover, construction at nearby Central Florida Community College is changing the college's appearance and its mission. A new $2.5-million University Center features four-year and graduate degree on-campus programs from several Florida universities. More than $13.6 million in other construction is also under way to build three more centers that will offer workforce development, corporate training, health occupation education, conferencing and more.
BUSINESSES TO WATCH: Hydro Spa, a Clearwater maker of personal spas, is opening an Ocala facility vacated by Mark III, a van conversion company. Hydro Spa is expected to hire 200 workers in the next 12 to 18 months. ... RMS Communications Group, a refurbisher of cell phones and pagers, is now partnering with Cingular to offer nationwide communication services. The company is also creating a website for people wanting to sell used cell phones and plans to give away up to 500 working emergency service phones every month to charities serviced by the United Way.
PERSON TO WATCH: Jaye Baillie, the new executive director of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce, brings "a unifying approach to the chamber," says Pat Gabriel of the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council. "She wants to bring in others to the discussions, not just businesses." An advocate of community cooperation, Baillie created a task force of 40 to study Ocala women's health and safety problems cited in a recent Self Magazine nationwide survey.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: Oregon-based Monaco Coach Corp. closed its facility in Leesburg and opened an 85,000-sq.-ft. RV service center, complete with a campground, in Wildwood. Adding 120 much-needed jobs in Sumter, the company also plans to hire 50 workers next year.
Levy / Dixie Counties
KEY TREND: A lack of roads no longer hampers development in north central's Gulf Coast counties because the new Suncoast Parkway from Tampa and the widening of U.S. Highway 27 from Ocala to Chiefland are increasing traffic. "They're opening us up to increased tourism and land ownership," says Lannie Cardona, executive director of the Nature Coast Business Development Council. "People are learning Levy isn't where Pluto is."
INDUSTRY TO WATCH: A decade ago, 150 unemployed fishermen in Dixie and Levy counties took part in a government-funded aquaculture training program. Today 200 local "growers" have made Cedar Key the leading hard clam producer in the nation, with $10 million a year in dockside sales, that also produces a $22-million economic impact on the area and $34 million statewide. "But we're running into our first roadblock" -- industrywide overproduction, says Leslie Sturmer, University of Florida Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Service agent.
PERSON TO WATCH: Kent Whittington, a DEP Parks and Recreation project manager, guides the creation of an "eco-heritage corridor" that runs from White Springs to the Gulf of Mexico and passes through eight counties, including Dixie and Levy. Hopes run high that the 160-mile Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, replete with river camps, cabins, rest stops, motels and screened pavilions, will boost tourism. Whittington expects the governor to fund the trail with $1 million per year over the next five years. The Suwannee River Water Management District promises to match those funds.
Bradford / Union Counties
KEY TREND: "In 1994, we lost 400 to 500 jobs because of textile plant closings," says Lex Green, president and CEO of the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce of Bradford and Union County and the city of Keystone Heights. Next came a fall in timber prices. "And now the third wave hit," says Green. With the Tyson Foods closing in Jacksonville, Bradford lost at least 90 jobs worth $3 million in salaries and about $300,000 in ad valorem taxes. Many residents hope the governor will declare their region one of "critical concern" to expedite help from state agencies.
PERSON TO WATCH: Jacksonville resident Bill McCormick says he started his new company, Blowfish Plastics, in Starke in Bradford County because, "I wanted to be in a small town that would appreciate our business." Since opening in July, this manufacturer of plastic beverage containers for the citrus market has expanded from four employees to 35 and now operates every day around the clock. McCormick, a recent recipient of the New Industry of the Year Award from the local chamber, plans to start a second facility in the Carolinas in the next 24 months.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: Having bought Redd Team Manufacturing in 2001, Alcoa Aluminum, a Fortune 100 company, now hopes to build a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility in Keystone Heights and add 50 workers to build aluminum steps, ramps, docks, pedestrian bridges and other structures.
POPULATION TOTALSAnnual Percentage ChangeCounty20022003'02-'03'98-'03'03-'08Alachua223,309229,1941.27%1.92%1.45%Bradford26,54726,9211.41%1.08%1.09%Dixie14,51214,8742.49%2.46%2.07%Levy35,92336,6562.04%2.23%1.99%Marion268,590273,2231.59%2.20%2.12%Sumter60,04162,2013.60%5.47%2.21%Union13,91014,2502.44%1.76%1.45%FLORIDA16,689,00216,977,8901.73%2.08%1.75%
JOB TOTALSAnnual Percentage ChangeCounty20022003'02-'03'98-'03'03-'08Alachua123,076125,1971.72%1.78%1.92%Bradford6,6156,6961.22%1.00%1.27%Dixie2,6672,7302.36%0.26%1.68%Levy7,5627,7412.37%2.31%2.21%Marion84,59587,1743.05%1.57%2.87%Sumter8,9449,1572.38%2.07%2.10%Union4,0084,1072.47%1.83%0.74%FLORIDA7,318,6977,488,0472.31%2.45%2.16%
POPULATION BY AGEYears of AgeCounty0-1415-1920-3940-6465+TOTALAlachua16.2%10.8%37.2%26.2%9.6%229,194Bradford17.5%6.5%29.6%33.0%13.4%26,921Dixie17.4%6.2%24.3%33.6%18.5%14,874Levy18.2%6.6%21.3%34.3%19.6%36,656Marion16.9%6.1%19.8%32.3%24.9%273,223Sumter13.4%5.1%21.0%31.8%28.7%62,201Union16.2%6.1%35.3%34.5%7.9%14,250FLORIDA18.5%6.5%25.4%32.0%17.6%16,977,890
PER CAPITA INCOMEPer Capita
Income 2003Source of IncomeCountyLaborPropertyTransferAlachua$27,48766.3%19.0%14.7%Bradford$19,70565.0%12.8%22.2%Dixie$17,07348.9%17.4%33.7%Levy$19,81953.2%18.2%28.6%Marion$24,56552.5%23.5%24.0%Sumter$15,79347.0%22.4%30.6%Union$14,88366.4%13.7%19.9%FLORIDA$30,65460.2%23.7%16.1%
SOURCE: "Florida Long-Term Economic Forecast 2002," the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Florida. Data are estimates or projections. Population data include military stationed in Florida and inmates. Jobs data measure civilian, nonagricultural wage and salary positions. Property income includes rent, dividend and interest payments; transfer income includes retirement, veterans and unemployment benefits, Medicare, Medicaid and income assistance.