February 6, 2023

Around the State- Northeast- Nov. 2000

Jane Tanner | 11/1/2000
Economic Development: 'Cynical But Hopeful'
Can the latest effort to clean up contamination at a coveted river industrial site maintain momentum?

By Jane Tanner

A prime, 31-acre industrial site along the St. Johns River has sat vacant since 1978 -- a remarkable pocket of inactivity amid ever-increasing industrial bustle at port facilities surrounding it. To the north, Toyota 4Runners and Lexuses are unloaded from cargo ships from Japan. To the south, barges that routinely make relays between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico are loaded and unloaded.

From 1919 until 1978, various owners used the site to mix fertilizers and pesticides. The last owner, Kerr-McGee Chemical, which bought the property in 1970, also operated a steel drum reconditioning facility there. In 1978, the company closed the facility and demolished the buildings, and for the next two decades, little happened. Tensions between state regulators and the company over cleaning up the contamination kept progress at a standstill.

Outsiders accused both Kerr-McGee and Florida's Department of Environmental Protection of dragging their feet; meanwhile, pollutants seeped into the St. Johns River. Then, in 1998, the federal Environmental Protection Agency stepped in at the DEP's behest, and Kerr-McGee signed a cleanup consent order last March. The question now appears to be whether the various stakeholders can cooperate successfully to keep momentum behind a cleanup effort.

One issue is the site's proximity to a neighborhood and businesses. Under the terms of the EPA consent order, Kerr-McGee, a giant energy company based in Oklahoma, must hire an agency to serve as liaison between the cleanup effort and the community. The company chose Fresh Ministries, an ecumenical group active in economic development. Michael Bryant, director of urban ministries, says the group will send out newsletters and go door-to-door to provide updates and cull feedback from the 4,000 or so residents who live in the areas near the site. The group also is organizing community meetings and creating a repository at a neighborhood library for regulatory cleanup documents, including summaries in layman's terms. Debbie Schramm, a spokeswoman for Kerr-McGee, says the company is working closely with the community.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville City Councilwoman Pat Lockett-Felder has designated herself a project watchdog. She represents the neighborhoods around the former plant and grew up a few miles away. Her father, Walter Lockett, worked at the plant site under different owners for 40 years.

City officials have also gotten involved. Coen Purvis, a former retail strip developer who's now acting division chief of comprehensive planning, pulled all the key parties together to help get the remediation going. The Kerr-McGee site won't get any state-designated brownfields incentives during the cleanup, the city says, but once it is an operating business, it could qualify for state tax breaks based on targeted industry qualifications. Jacksonville port officials and neighborhood activists are banking on that day. "I want jobs brought back to the area, but I want them good, clean, wholesome jobs," says Lockett-Felder.

The first phase of the consent order, a study to suggest ways to clean up the contamination, started this summer and should be finished by next fall. John Blanchard, who's heading the project for the EPA, says the site could be back in use within three to five years. But officials at the Jacksonville Port Authority who have witnessed the previous lack of progress remain a bit skeptical. The port has coveted the site and would like to add it to its marine operations directly to the north. "I'm cynical but hopeful," says David Kaufman, the port's director of planning.

In the News

Gainesville -- The National Science Foundation gave University of Florida researchers a $5-million grant to study how genes control growth of corn and other cereal grains, which account for about 90% of the world's food supply, according to the university.

Jacksonville -- The 115-year-old Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce will get its first female chair next year. Carol Thompson, an executive at Baptist Health, will lead the business group in 2001 and will be followed by another woman -- commercial development attorney Lynn Pappas, in 2002.

At $60.70, the average price of a ticket to a Jacksonville Jaguars game is the fourth-highest among the 31 National Football League teams. The cost of tickets and snacks for a family of four, $328.80, was also fourth out of 31, according to an annual survey by Chicago-based Team Marketing Report. That hasn't stopped Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin from continuing to berate fans who watch the games from home while the team plays in front of less-than-capacity crowds.

Cincinnati-based Convergys Corp., which operates the largest call center in Jacksonville, plans to add 550 workers in the next few months. It already employs 4,500.

The needs of existing companies vs. the need to lure new businesses is becoming a heated issue as cities use public incentives to attract companies. Local printer North Florida Web Press objects to a $2.8-million incentive package proposed to entice Los Angeles-based Trend Offset Printing. Web Press President Richard Walsh says a new firm is likely to raid his trained workers, noting he wouldn't mind competing with a company that comes without taxpayer funds. The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission was likely to pass the incentives package.

Jacksonville Port Authority's board voted to split the agency into separate aviation and maritime operations. A panel that studied the matter said splitting the agency would allow the city's airports and seaports to grow faster and be better-focused. If the City Council votes to support the split, the resolution will then be introduced in the Legislature.

Ocala -- Intellon Corp., which is developing integrated circuits that deliver high-speed communications over power lines, hopes to raise $86.3 million in an initial public offering. Compaq Computer and Motorola are investors in the company.

Orange Park -- Nashville-based HCA Healthcare plans to open a high-tech billing center in Orange Park next spring to serve its hospitals in north Florida and Orlando. HCA will hire about 500 employees, mostly clerical. The average salary will be $27,000.

St. Augustine -- St. Augustine-based Florida East Coast Industries (NYSE-FLA), a railroad company with real estate, trucking and communications subsidiaries, plans to pump $237 million into its relatively new wholesale fiber-optic business, Orlando-based Epik Communications. So far, FEC has put $213 million into the venture, which it expects to lose money for the first few years but then produce strong profit growth. The St. Joe Co. (NYSE-JOE), which owns 54% of FEC's stock, received Internal Revenue Service approval to spin its holding off to shareholders this year.

The St. Augustine-St. Johns County Airport Authority plans to pump $8 million into upgrades at the St. Augustine airport. Already, the airport has snagged jet charter services and corporate jets from Craig Field in Jacksonville. Future aspirations include commercial air service.

Education: Not Making the Grade
JACKSONVILLE -- The Florida Times-Union reported that 49% of Duval County's ninth-graders flunked one or more subjects last school year, the highest percentage for any Florida county. The poor quality of the county's public schools is frustrating businesses in need of skilled workers and turning off companies thinking of moving here.

Superintendent John Fryer says he has been fighting to upgrade the system since he arrived 21¼2 years ago. During his first school tours, he was aghast to find student papers rife with grammatical errors graded as A's. Last year, he instituted immersion courses in reading and math for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. At least 17,000 students in those grades lagged in those subjects.

Fryer calls middle schools a "vast wasteland" where grade-school material is reviewed. It's no surprise, he says, that ninth-graders can't cut it. He says the high failure rate also reflects higher state and local requirements and complains that many middle school teachers can't perform the math problems they're supposed to teach. He's pushing for better college preparation of teachers and more focused teacher training during their careers. He wants to create intellectual climates in teachers' lounges to encourage teachers to become avid readers who will pass the passion along to students.

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