by Jane Tanner
Updated 4 yearss ago
Hamilton County's biggest employer is bringing in new jobs and improving the quality of life -- but it won't be around forever.
In Hamilton County, phosphate mining has dominated the economy for more than three decades. But the industry has reached middle age: With underground phosphate reserves expected to run out in the next 25 years, the clock has begun ticking for the county on what has become an effort to reinvent its economy.
PCS Phosphate, a subsidiary of Canada-based Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, one of the biggest producers worldwide, employs about 1,130 in Hamilton, which lies on the Georgia border about midway between Tallahassee and Jacksonville. PCS is the only big private sector game in town, with 1,100 government jobs at the county and state prison providing the next biggest source of jobs. It won't be easy to replace the jobs and tax revenue PCS generates. A year ago, the county began a massive self-assessment effort to identify problems and opportunities.
Hamilton boasts one of the highest population growth rates in the state this decade, having grown from about 11,000 residents in 1990 to more than 15,000. But poverty rates are high in Jasper, Jennings and White Springs, the three main cities. And all those newcomers haven't helped the tax base much: Many buy land cheap and put in mobile homes; after deducting the homestead exemption, they add little or nothing to the tax rolls.
County leaders want to improve housing, promote local eco-tourism and draw more tourists. So far, the county's strong transportation links, with Interstate 75 running through and I-10 just south, have hurt as much as helped: Many residents make the short commute up I-75 to work and shop in Valdosta, Ga. Others, including some top executives at PCS, work in Hamilton but live outside the county in places like Lake City.
PCS, whose mining rights expire in 2002, works only part of the 100,000 acres where it has rights. It is now renewing permits to continue through 2025 -- or longer if new technologies extend its ability to extract phosphate.
At the moment, local leaders say, PCS is a good corporate citizen, a welcome change from the often antagonistic relations with the mine's former owner, Occidental Petroleum. PCS has donated land for an industrial park and insisted that three suppliers move into the county before it would renew their contracts. It also has donated tens of thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind services for youth centers and other quality-of-life projects.
PCS also is cooperating with local and state agencies that want it to revitalize mined lands.
The mining leaves scars and mounds of slightly radioactive gypsum, and PCS has hired a land-use consultant, Mark Gluckman, who also works with the Suwannee River Water Management District, to create post-mining blueprints.
Gluckman says there is enormous potential for vast pristine wildlife and a mix of residential communities, agriculture and commerce. Indeed, old mining sites can be vibrant. The Bienville Plantation, a pricey private bass-fishing resort carved out of former phosphate pits in the county, is nationally renowned.
County officials want to make sure PCS maintains its high level of corporate citizenship after it renews its permits. "After they've left, we want to have something that's marketable," says county manager Mike Williams. "Something that's not going to look like an alien landscape."
In the News
Alachua County -- Ixion Biotechnology, a bio-tech firm that is an off-spring of UF's Biotechnology Institute, received a $200,000 National Institutes of Health grant to research an implantation therapy for juvenile onset diabetes.
Fernandina Beach -- Jacksonville developer Harry Trevett bought the former First Union building on Centre Street and is converting the two-story, 14,000-sq.-ft. property into law offices and other professional offices upstairs, with brokers and other financial services on the street-level.
Gainesville-- McGurn Investment Co.'s Union Street Station, a 140,000-sq.-ft., mixed-use revitalization project downtown, is set to open in January. Other nearby plans working their way through the public approval process include a new courthouse and new chamber of commerce building.
Bear Archery, maker of high-end bow-hunting gear, merged with Pasco County's Golden Eagles/Satellite Archery to form North American Archery Group, which company officials say is the largest archery equipment operation in the world. The company hasn't said where it will set up its headquarters.
Jacksonville -- Florida Community College at Jacksonville plans to build a $12-million Advanced Technology Center to train workers for jobs in aviation, aerospace, medical technology, the auto industry, pharmaceuticals and electronics. The initiative to draw companies with higher-paying jobs has raised about $7 million already.
FRP Properties (Nasdaq-FRPP), a sister company to Florida Rock Industries (NYSE-FRK), plans to spin off its real estate operations from its trucking and transportation lines. Shareholders likely will vote in February to create a new publicly traded company to oversee FRP's Baltimore-based real estate operations, which develop industrial warehouse sites in Maryland and manage a portfolio of land parcels -- primarily relating to mining royalty agreements with Florida Rock -- in states from Maryland to Florida.
Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. this month closed its second Jacksonville plant since Jefferson Smurfit and Stone Container merged a year ago. A 104-employee corrugated-container plant was consolidated with two similar plants, one in Jacksonville and one in Fernandina Beach. The company still employs about 1,600 at nine area plants.
Defense Systems Limited, a subsidiary of Armor Holdings (NYSE-AH), which makes law enforcement equipment and provides security services, intensified its mine-clearing operations in Kosovo this fall so that refugees could return home before winter.
Levy County -- The Florida Communities Trust gave the county a $2.2-million grant to buy 1,890 acres of hardwood forest at the headwaters of the Waccasassa River for public preservation. Two years ago, the trust provided $5 million for Devils Hammock, the first large-scale purchase of wetlands in the area.
St. Augustine -- The St. Joe Co. (NYSE-JOE) plans to spin off its 54% interest in St. Augustine-based Florida East Coast Industries (NYSE-FLA) to further concentrate on real estate. St. Joe's 19.6-million shares of the railroad company will be distributed to St. Joe shareholders, if the IRS and shareholders of both companies approve the move. Along with the railroad, Florida East Coast has a business park development firm that St. Joe will still manage for three years and a subsidiary that sells use of its fiber-optic lines along the railroad.
St. Johns County -- Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, perhaps golf's most cherished rivals, also go head-to-head with rival golf course design firms, but now they are collaborating for the first time. The King & The Bear course will open at the World Golf Village next fall.
Union County -- Chicago-based Merrill Lynch Business Financial Services got an abandoned Lake Butler textile factory property in a court-ordered liquidation. This fall the firm donated the three-building, 80,000-sq.-ft. complex to Lake Butler. The city planned to turn around and sell it at a below-market price to a Pennsylvania maker of men's suits for use as a distribution center that could employ up to 50 next year.
After several years of relative calm, political intrigue has returned to the Jacksonville Port Authority (JPA). One issue is whether to split JPA into two new authorities: one managing the city's airports and another its seaports. Advocates say a separate airport authority is needed to better focus on growth, including the commercial development of the former Cecil Field Naval airbase. Opponents of a split argue it will be less cost-effective. City Hall has put the matter on a fast track. A nine-member advisory committee will study the issue. Mayor John Delaney, City Council President Ginger Soud and JPA Chairman Ed Austin each will appoint three members. Delaney wants the legislation changed so the mayor would have the greater number of appointees. Presumably, he'd have greater control of a new airport authority. Meanwhile, nine months after hiring former Jacksonville City Council member Ginny Myrick as director of legislative affairs, the port authority has let her go and hired Tidewater Consulting Inc., the Tallahassee lobbying firm run by Tom Slade, former state GOP chairman and close ally of Delaney.