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NORTH CENTRAL: Preparing for the Future

North Central

The hottest issue facing the North Central region: The St. Johns River Water Management District’s proposal to build pipelines through much of the area to tap the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers as possible water sources for the region — and possibly for metro Orlando. Dozens of government officials and private groups have protested the idea, citing environmental concerns. They are proposing conservation and desalination efforts instead. Many regional leaders also worry that North Central won’t be able to meet its own future water needs if local water is piped south.

See population, income and job statistics from this region.

The region also has other water worries, as nitrates continue to degrade Silver, Fanning and Rainbow springs. A lack of rainfall means that Dixie, Union and parts of Alachua, Bradford and Levy counties face new and tougher water restrictions.

Population growth, meanwhile, proves a mixed commercial blessing. Gainesville’s business community, for instance, says local roads, schools and industrial parks need upgrading to keep up with growth and to attract commerce. A special task force survey for Gainesville’s Council for Economic Outreach reveals that during a 15-month period, 42 companies contacted the council about locating in Alachua County, but the county had only enough space for 11 of those projects.

Ocala’s real estate boom — though cooling — had been making it hard to attract businesses to the area as rising land prices and crowded roads increased the cost of doing business and created transportation problems. “Local hospitals and manufacturers find it difficult to attract others to come on down when housing is losing its affordability,” says Pete Tesch, president and CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corp.

North Central’s more rural counties — Sumter, Union, Bradford, Levy, Dixie — hope their lower taxes and low impact fees will lure some of those companies looking for space.


North Central’s population is projected to hit 818,600 by 2010, a 10.6% increase from 2006. With a third of a million residents, Marion County is the region’s most populated, but Sumter, home to much of The Villages, is the fastest-growing. During the 1990s, Sumter was one of five counties in Florida with more than 60% growth and one of three in the past seven years with more that 50%.


David Day
Spinoff Record (Gainesville) David Day
» The University of Florida’s Office of Technology Licensing helped seal 75 deals last year that moved 107 of the university’s discoveries and inventions from the lab to the business community. Last fall, eight spinoff companies raised $60 million, a UF record, to develop pharmaceuticals, medical devices and defense and internet products. David Day, director of the technology and licensing office, expects a robust influx of venture capital to keep him busy in 2008. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

The prospect of layoffs looms large at the University of Florida. The school was forced to cut $34 million last fall and now must trim another $16 million because of a shrinking state budget. The university considered cutting back its summer school schedule but reconsidered after an outcry from students and Gainesville-area businesses.

Concern is also mounting over what passage of Amendment 1, which cuts property taxes, will do to a county where 32.1% of employees depend heavily on government.

But there’s optimism too. The Moffitt Cancer Center, Shands HealthCare and the University of Florida recently announced plans to develop advanced programs in cancer care, research and prevention at Shands at UF, where construction is under way on a $388-million, 500,000-sq.-ft. cancer hospital expected to open in 2009.

Meanwhile, California-based developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities is moving ahead with plans to build The Innovation Center at UF. The 160,000-sq.-ft. facility will house offices and life-science and technology labs that should be a boon for the university’s growing number of spinoffs.


“The biggest stumbling block for companies,” says Tommy McIntosh, who headed a task force that studied Alachua County’s paucity of commercial and industrial space, “is that the time to build doesn’t match up with the time frame of the user” because of local government delays. The solution, he says, is for developers, environmentalists and government officials to identify parcels of land that can be developed and then get concurrency, land use and zoning approvals all lined up so that the property is ready to go. “Most everyone buys into this idea,” says McIntosh. “So far we are not getting much push-back.”

Randy Ewers
Development Push (Ocala) Randy Ewers
» Ocala Mayor Randy Ewers, an engineer at Class 1, a maker of fire engine equipment, is pushing for development on 658 acres at the Ocala municipal airport. In addition, he wants the city to annex 600 acres of horse farm that never developed into a planned racetrack and use it for industrial and commercial purposes. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]


South Florida developer Jorge Gutman tore up a parking lot and was supposed to have renovated an old Sprint building near Ocala’s town center to build a $25-million mix of trendy restaurants, retail shops and town homes. The project, however, collapsed in a welter of litigation. City officials hope to eventually turn the project over to another developer. Another downtown deal turned out much better, however: After two years of talks, Pensacola-based Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition will buy the old library building next door and set up a research lab.
Meanwhile, Marion County’s building department has eliminated 65 positions since June because of a downturn in new single-family construction.


Marion Technical Institute was recently cited as one of the nation’s “25 Model High Schools” by the International Center for Leadership in Education for its technology-based education.


» Defense spending assures Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Ocala a solid future, but the outlook is less certain for other companies. As the chairman-elect of the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corp., Brian O’Connor, site director at the Lockheed plant, wants the EDC to cultivate more overseas markets. “We’re looking at twinning with Newbridge, Ireland, to give Ocala more of an international presence,” he says. Local manufacturers such as Sunair Electronic, American Spaceframe Fabricators and E-One “may benefit from a weaker U.S. dollar because they market products internationally.”

» Ron Barnwell is executive director of Heart of Florida Regional Coalition, an alliance of 45 business, government, non-profit and education entities set up by the presidents of Central Florida Community College in Ocala and Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. Barnwell leads the coalition’s effort to forge a regional force on behalf of Marion and Alachua and neighboring counties to confront economic development, transportation and other issues. Among other things, the group is studying water needs and soliciting business prospects to North Central. “The thrust of my job,” says Barnwell, “is getting the right leadership to come to the table to develop working solutions that we can offer state legislators, speaking with one voice.”

Housing Trend / North Central
COUNTY 2004-05 Starts 2005-06 Starts 2006 Change % Change
Union 43.8% 46 64 39.1%
Bradford 24.4 107 145 35.5
Marion 30.0 7,198 6,784 -5.8
Levy 15.1 259 234 -9.7
Dixie 64.6 79 60 -24.1
Sumter 19.1 5,033 3,795 -24.6
Alachua 40.1 2,591 1,797 -30.6
Source: Office of Economic and Demographic Research, Florida Legislature


Though rural Sumter County is blessed with important roadways and impressive growth, its housing, infrastructure and industrial base have a long way to go. Nonetheless, some companies are expanding. One of them, Eagle Roofing Products Florida, a subsidiary of Burlingame Industries, anticipates it will finish building a 228,000-sq.-ft. concrete Sumterville roof tile manufacturing facility this year. Company executives expect to employ at least 200 at the plant.


» Bradley Arnold, Sumter’s county administrator, is playing a critical role in the county’s development. Chief among his leadership skills is “his administrative experience in helping the county commissioners to be more efficient in setting policies that are consistent in helping the county meet its goals over the next five or 10 years,” says Linda Winchester, interim executive director of the Sumter Economic Development Council and a Sumter County school board member.


Levy County is “ripe for development,” says Amanda Douglas, executive director of the Nature Coast Business Council. However, some locals think their county is still too limited by zoning and property restrictions. The newly established Levy County Enterprise Zone Development Agency that encompasses four towns could help change things. Meanwhile, Progress Energy is studying whether to build a nuclear power plant in the county, and construction on a tricounty hospital is expected to break ground in October. Concern is also growing over Tarmac America’s proposal to create a large-scale rock mine near Levy’s Gulf Coast to provide construction-grade aggregate.
Neighboring Dixie County faces a troubling year now that Georgia Pacific, a major employer for decades, has suspended operations for 80 workers at its mill due to the housing slump. However, the local economy could get a boost if and when the Florida Department of Corrections gets funding to follow through with a plan to build a 600-bed work camp in the county.


» Berlon Weeks, the newest board member of the Levy County Enterprise Zone Development Agency, was elected to the Bronson City Council because he thought the city was ignoring an uncompleted sewer project. “The town was also blighted-looking,” he says. Recently, Weeks hired a wastewater specialist and raised funds from the local school board and Levy County government to complete the sewer lines to attract business. Next, Weeks wants “to extend water and fire hydrants to everyone in town.”


Union County has only has about 15,000 residents and not much in the way of economic development. But Plum Creek Timber Co., which owns 53% of the county’s land, has been talking with Lake Butler city officials about possibly annexing 3,861 acres the company owns into the city for residential development. Plum Creek is also hoping to build an industrial park on 800 acres of its holdings elsewhere in the county.

In Bradford County, Dean Weaver, the incoming chamber chairman and manager of Watson Realty of Keystone Heights, hopes the tricounty marketing plan he recently developed to tout the region’s rural quality of life will attract newcomers.

Meanwhile, if all goes as expected, a million-dollar upgrade at the Keystone Heights Airpark should break ground this spring. Plans call for hangar expansion, fire suppression improvement and two road projects, one of which is expected to open a section of the airport for development as a commercial center.


Worthington Springs City Commission President John Rimes III says Union County will benefit in a recession because, “as far as I’m concerned Union County has been in a recession its entire life. We’ve been behind the curve, but now we’re set to benefit from all those businesses that want to pull out of the high-tax counties.” With no impact fees, a spruced-up industrial park in Worthington Springs and a plan to pave the local airport’s 6,000-foot runway, Rimes says Union County is set to lure industry from places like Gainesville, just 17 miles to the south.


» John Miller gets much of the credit for moving Bradford County forward. Under Miller’s leadership, says Ron Lilly, CEO of the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce, “the county now has a conference center — the Gov. Charley E. Johns Conference Center — which has just finished its first year of operation with a positive cash flow.” As chairman of Bradford’s Tourist Development Council and owner of the Bradford County Telegraph newspaper, Miller “can make or break the local direction of recession,” Lilly says.