FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Northeast counties internet service coalition frays

As billions of stimulus dollars flowed from the Obama administration during the financial crisis, 14 rural north Florida counties banded together to try to bring faster, more reliable broadband service to the region.

In 2009, with the help of the North Florida Economic Development Partnership, the counties and eight municipalities formed the North Florida Broadband Authority, an independent governmental entity similar to a utility. The authority hired Tallahassee-based Government Services Group to serve as general manager. The firm helped the authority secure a $30-million federal grant in 2010 to build a network to support the effort. The authority also hired Tallahassee- based Capitol Solutions to work on grant compliance. The counties were to provide $9 million in land and existing communication towers. 

The authority, whose board comprised representatives from each county, was supposed to set up the infrastructure — putting antennas on towers, establishing fiber access points and data centers — and then contract with a provider to bring broadband service to customers.

Within two years, however, the effort was a shambles. In 2011, the federal government suspended the project over concerns about conflicts of interest and mismanagement of funds. General Services Group and Capitol Solutions resigned. The suspension was lifted later that year, and the authority started hiring its own staff, beginning with general manager Richelle Sucara, who did not return calls for this article.

John Thomas, a commissioner with Gilchrist County, which voted last year to leave the project, says he couldn’t get answers to his financial queries. “What did our $30 million get us?” Thomas asks. “Well, I never really got an answer.” 

An unaudited balance sheet dated March 2013 on the authority’s website provides a list of assets, liabilities and expenses, but the CPA firm that compiled the information said “management has elected to omit substantially all of the disclosures required by accounting principles generally accepted.” 

Former broadband authority Chairman Tommy Langford says the authority was unfairly targeted. Documents submitted to the federal government say the network has 95 tower sites and is “more than 50%” complete.

In October, with the original grant funds depleted, the authority had to find a private company to take over the network. Austin-based Affiniti has signed what Langford called a “partnership agreement” that includes paying the authority a $15,000-permonth “rights fee.” 

The authority says it can provide broadband in the north Florida area — whether a county is participating or not. But it now lacks some of the donations of land and equipment promised when the other counties joined. 


GAINESVILLE — Sideris Pharmaceutical, a spinoff from a University of Florida research lab, secured a $32-million venture capital investment that includes an agreement to give exclusive rights to Novartis Pharmaceuticals to acquire the company and its technology. The Gainesville City Commission voted to make a $400-million offer to purchase the city’s new biomass plant. The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center had told the city it planned to seek investors or sell the plant outright if the city didn’t make an offer.

GILCHRIST COUNTY — The owners of Blue Springs Park are planning to sell the iconic property in High Springs, known for its springfed swimming hole and campgrounds. Kim Davis and brother Matt Barr’s family had owned the land since 1958. The 400-acre property is listed for $10 million.

JACKSONVILLE — EverBank sold its $13.4 billion in mortgage service rights and its service platform to Green Tree. Green Tree will also subservice EverBank’s Ginnie Mae and government loan servicing portfolio with an unpaid balance of $6.9 billion. Green Tree will hire at least 500 employees as part of the deal and plans to take over three of the bank’s Floors in the EverBank Center in downtown Jacksonville. California-based Clean Energy Fuels will build a natural gas processing and fueling terminal in north Jacksonville. It is the first plant on the Eastern seaboard focused on supplying the transportation industry. Odyssey Investment Partners sold Jacksonvillebased One Call Care Management to private equity fund Apax Partners in what Reuters news agency reported as a $2-billion deal. One Call provides cost-containment services in the workers’ compensation industry. 

>> Despite a setback in Congress, the Jacksonville Port Authority has agreed to pay $5 million for preliminary engineering and design work for dredging its channel from its current 40-foot depth down to 47 feet. 

>> Jacksonville-based APR Energy will buy General Electric’s power rental business in a $314-million deal. Called GE Power & Water, the unit provides temporary power generation through mobile gas turbines. Jacksonville-based Rayonier has sold more than 21,000 acres of timberland in Georgia to Conservation Forestry. 

>> Coryell-Ouachita Group of Jacksonville has partnered with Decisive Explorer, a company backed by an investment from a royal Malaysian family,to develop and acquire leases for offshore oil fields in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana. 

>> AmeriHealth Caritas is planning a call center in the Baymeadows area, bringing anywhere from 300 to 400 jobs. 

MARION — The city of Dunnellon voted to sell Greenlight Communications, its fiber-optic business, to Florida Cable for $1 million.

OCALA — The Ocala City Council will ask the county to place a referendum before voters in March to pay for a five-year, half-cent sales tax to build a $60-million stadium for a Yankees minor league team. >> ProFab Plastics, which makes and assembles plastics and medical components, will move its headquarters to Ocala from Wisconsin. It plans to bring about 60 jobs. >> Call center company Sitel plans to hire 250.

SUWANNEE COUNTY — The county rejected a proposal by Integrated Waste Management Systems to build a medical waste incinerator.

PROFILE - Avondale Travel 

The arrival of the internet in the late 1990s nearly rendered travel agencies extinct. Why call a travel agent when you can book a flight, hotel room and rental car online in less than five minutes with no fees? Not only has Leigh Bryan taken over her father’s travel agency, Avondale Travel (formerly Orange Park Travel) in Orange Park, but she has seen sales grow 30% in the last year — by focusing on affluent clients.

Her agency is a member of concierge travel agency network Virtuoso, which offers partnerships with vendors and suppliers to get clients “added benefits and amenities they can’t find anywhere else,” Bryan says. “If they dream of something they think would be cool — a private tour of the Vatican, World Cup tickets that are sold out, we can do it,” she says. 


Kirk Wendland is director of business development for Stellar, a design-build and engineering firm. He had been president of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce. >> Kathy Viehe is the head of Gainesville Regional Utilities. Viehe was the interim general manager and will replace Bob Hunzinger.