by John M. Dunn
Updated 5 yearss ago
Some of the roads in downtown Gainesville are so thick with cars that transportation concurrency rules forbid new development. This, say critics, forces developers to build farther away from urban centers, which contributes to urban sprawl.
Gainesville builder Mike Warren, president of AMJ Inc., knows the problem. His company wants to take an abandoned, 54,000-sq.-ft. Scotty's store just four blocks from the University of Florida and turn it into a mixed-use retail and professional center. But excessive traffic stopped him. "It's a vacant building that's an eyesore and does nothing but decay," he complains.
Help may be on the way. Recently, the city commission voted to exempt many streets from concurrency rules. In return, developers must build bus shelters, sidewalks, bike racks and other features that encourage alternate modes of transportation. The Florida Department of Community Affairs has already given its blessing to the plan.
Concurrency issues have not halted construction downtown. AMJ is building a new three-story chamber of commerce facility and 46 high-end condominiums. Also Union Street Station, a five-story, mixed-use complex, will be finished any day, and the University of Florida Foundation is constructing a four-story office building. To keep its cityscape at least somewhat green, the city of Gainesville plants 1,000 trees a year.
Meanwhile in East Gainesville, the poor side of town, the issue isn't traffic but affordable housing and attracting new businesses. The city, with the help of state and federal funding, is building 131 subsidized, single-family homes, each with a front porch and landscaping. City officials also broke ground on a 30,000-sq.-ft. business incubator -- the Gainesville Technology Center -- designed to nurture up to 30 budding companies by assisting entrepreneurs with marketing, management and technology. City planners hope the facility will raise the area's business profile and encourage retail development. At any rate, many of the construction jobs to build the incubator will go to locals.
People to Watch
Developers Ken and Linda McGurn strongly believe in downtown "in-fill." Union Street Station is their project, as were Harry's Restaurant, First Union Bank, the Florida Theater, Sun Center and many others. The duo also has plans for a six-story, mixed-used complex in Gainesville and similar multimillion-dollar projects in Port Orange and St. Augustine.
Conchi Ossa, Gainesville's economic development director, spearheaded creation of the Gainesville Technology Center -- a $1.8-million business incubator. The center will use government funds to hatch businesses in a part of town that Ossa says has been "overlooked by investors."
Businesses to Watch
NeuralDimensions makes software products that use "neural net" processing to emulate the way the human brain works. According to Gary Lynn, company spokesman, revenues have grown 15% each year since 1995 from sales in 45 countries. The company expects even better sales from a new product that spots stock market trends and helps day traders make financial decisions.
Regeneration Technologies crafts pins, screws and dowels from bone tissue for use by orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists. Begun in 1998, the company has grown from 76 employees to more than 300 and continues to expand. Company spokesperson Nancy Walsh says revenues increased 87% from 1998 to 1999.
Gainesville is a university town, but 85% of its housing market is single-family homes and 15% condominiums. Median price for an existing home in 1999 in the Gainesville metro area was $108,000, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. County per capita personal income of $20,517 is highest in the North Central region.
Thanks to the University of Florida, Alachua is by far North Central's youngest county. It has 27% of the region's population, but 39% of its young people age 15-19, and 41% of those 20 to 39 years old.
Ocala: City that Can't Say No
Ocala is losing its identity as an equine center as the idyllic horse farms that long graced the outskirts of town yield to development. A decade ago, much of State Road 200, a major corridor heading west out of Ocala, was lined by horse farms and woods. Now it's clogged with residential developments that target retirees and new businesses. Traffic jams get worse as land is rezoned and new construction approved.
More development is on the way -- much more. Top of the World, a huge retirement community, is expanding. The Ocala Regional Medical Center, owned by Columbia/HCA, recently received permission from the state to build a $50-million hospital on S.R. 200 to serve the influx of retirees.
But the big player is Boca Raton developer Richard Siemens. On a horse farm once home to a Kentucky Derby winner, Siemens plans to build 1,500 single-family houses, 850 apartments, 150 assisted living facility units, 700,000 square feet of retail space, 100,000 square feet of office space, 200 hotel rooms, an 18-screen movie theater and a 36-hole golf course.
Some Ocalans welcome Siemens' plans. Upscale shopping venues, they say, will fill a void in the community and keep shoppers from going to Orlando and Tampa. Orlando-based economic consultant Fishkind & Associates estimates that new development will "generate a cumulative net positive fiscal impact of $24.1 million," for the city, Marion County and the local school board, mainly from higher ad valorem taxes.
Other Ocalans are appalled by the scope of the project. Ocala's planning department and the Ocala Planning and Zoning Commission both nixed the project, but the Ocala City Council approved Siemens' plan late last year. Andy Kesselring, a landscape architect and now an ex-councilman, cast the only "no" vote. Design flaws and the huge potential impact of the project, he says, convinced him to vote against it. In addition, he says, "I was hoping we could set a new standard for what we wanted for Ocala."
Instead, when this "city within a city" is built, editorializes the Ocala Star Banner, it "will change the face of Ocala."
People to Watch
Restaurateur, insurance agent and renovator George Carrasco was one of the first to realize Ocala's easing of impact fees would spark downtown revitalization. In the past six years, Carrasco has bought and rehabilitated 28 buildings in Ocala's community redevelopment area and historic district alone.
The number of retirees in Ocala unable to pay for their medicine is growing. That's why Gary Linn, executive director of Ocala's Interfaith Emergency Services, and Dr. Nathan Grossman, head of the Marion County Health Department, are training volunteers to help seniors fill out paperwork to qualify for little-known programs run by big pharmaceutical companies. Grants from private donors pay the drug bills of indigent seniors during their two- or three-month wait for acceptance into a company program.
Businesses to Watch
Merillat Corp. of Ocala, a manufacturer of kitchen cabinets, expects its new factory to be up and running in September. The company plans to hire 350 and expects its annual payroll to go as high as $8 million. "We wanted access to the Florida market," says plant manager Tom Royce. "Retirees aren't affected by a downturn in the market. They'll spend their money no matter what."
Taylor Bean & Whitaker, an Ocala-bred mortgage processing company, does business in 40 states. Recently it converted an old downtown auto parts building and a blighted Winn-Dixie store into new corporate offices to accommodate the 150 workers the company expects to hire in the next 12 to 18 months.
The Florida Association of Realtors says of Ocala: "There is a major difference in housing here compared to other markets -- you can get a lot of home and land for the money." Housing runs anywhere from $30,000 to $5 million.
Residents 65 and older comprise 25% of Ocala/Marion County's population, compared with 18% statewide, but the area's supply of doctors is low. In 1998, according to the 1999 Ocala Quality of Life Report, there were 156 physicians per 100,000 residents, while the Florida average was 229.
Alachua, Bradford, Putnam
"This is the first time ever that the city and the county each have a 'green' commission," says Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson. Commissioners are keen to ban some billboards in the county; they also intend to let voters decide whether to raise property taxes to buy environmentally sensitive land. Last year the Florida Supreme Court struck down Alachua County's "privilege fee" on electric utilities that used public rights of way. In so doing, the court quashed plans to use the fees to pay for transportation and infrastructure needs caused by growth.
The court's decision hit neighboring Bradford County even harder. "Our main problem is not enough growth," says Roy Ayres, Bradford County administrator. "We're really strapped for lack of revenues." One of Bradford's two utilities refuses to pay both "privilege" and negotiated "franchise" fees. This shortfall, plus an 18% increase in health insurance, forced commissioners to cut staff at the county's jail and planning department, and none of the 125 employees get raises this year. On the positive side, S.M.I. Joist, a manufacturer of steel joists, will hire up to 120 new workers within a year. Locals also hope new festivals and ecotourism will bring people and money into the area.
Putnam County is getting a small infrastructure facelift. A new regional water system is coming to underdeveloped East Palatka, and county commissioners recently approved a five-year capital improvement road-surfacing project. Along with a $1.9-million state road grant and a new 200-acre industrial park, the road project could help economic development. However, points out Putnam County Administrator Roger Baltz, "We still have several hundreds miles of dirt roads."
Businesses to Watch
In Putnam, Lafarge Gypsum has teamed up with Seminole Electric to use the utility's waste by-products to make wall-board. The manufacturer expects to create a tax base of $1.5 million and hire 100 workers.
Professional race car driver Ivor Wigham chose Bradford County over Marion for his European Rally and Performance Driving School to train drivers of airport-rescue vehicles and corporate tourists wanting to have fun with fast cars.
At last something's happening to improve transportation in isolated Citrus County. But is a turnpike extension what's really needed? Environmentalists want to stop construction of Phase One of the Suncoast Parkway -- a 41-mile stretch that will link the Tampa area to Citrus. Issues include: What impact will fast cars have on local roads? Will visitors stop and spend money in Citrus? Does Citrus really want to become Tampa's bedroom community? Other changes under way: A new hospital to serve veterans is coming to Citrus; ecotourism is growing, though talk of new restrictions on tourist access to manatees is causing concern.
A rise in boat building is providing much needed employment in Levy County, which has the lowest per capita income in the North Central region. Monterey Boats left Alachua County to relocate in Williston's new industrial park, bringing 200 to 400 jobs within two years. Emerald Coast, a maker of upholstery for boats, is coming with work for 40. In addition, Wise Trucking, an independent trucking firm, plans to hire 26 to transport boats to market.
Business to Watch
New EPA regulations convinced Citrus' homegrown Proline, a world-class manufacturer of luxury fishing boats, to relocate at a new industrial park in northeast Citrus, expand operations and add 150 to 200 workers in two years.
According to Royce Carter, Citrus County veteran services officer, 23,500 retired military personnel live in Citrus, a county of only 118,000. That's 20% of the population, and that helps explain why the county is getting a new veterans hospital.
Though industries are reluctant to move to rural Sumter, the county saw a 23.5% increase in population from 1994 to 1999 -- the fourth highest in the state. Many of the new residents were retirees, perhaps attracted by the low cost of living. "Our water and sewage rates have not gone up since 1988," says Jim Stevens, city manager of Wildwood, "and our city property tax is 25% lower than 12 years ago; that's because we've expanded utilities for new growth."
As much as 40% of Sumter's workforce is employed outside the county. Many work in Marion, where a strong economy has reversed the fortunes of wage earners. Not long ago, job agencies called upon companies trying to secure jobs for the unemployed.
That's all changed; now it's employers who call. In 1998, the Citrus, Levy, Marion Regional Workforce Development Board began recruiting for industry and business. Among its offerings is a One-Stop Center for employers in need of workers. Says Kathleen Woodring, the center's director of workforce initiative, "If people have skills and want to work, we've got jobs."
Organization to Watch
The Film Commission of Real Florida is North Central's new regional film recruiter. It's financed by $40,000 annually from the city of Ocala, a similar amount from Alachua County and Gainesville, and free office space and $10,000 in computer equipment from Marion County.