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Around the State- Northeast- Aug. 2000

To Drain or Not to Drain
The battle continues over the fate of the Rodman Reservoir.

By Jane Tanner

Fishing enthusiasts still talk about the near-record 17.2-pound largemouth bass snared in the Rodman Reservoir this spring. The world-class catch bolstered the reservoir's reputation as one of the best bass fishing holes in the South. But the reservoir -- created by a dam that was part of the abandoned Cross-Florida Barge Canal project -- remains controversial, and its future uncertain.

While lauded by its supporters as an economic boon to the area, the reservoir also has become a cause for environmentalists who have mourned the loss of the scenic Ocklawaha River and want the river restored by removing the dam and draining the reservoir.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is pushing plans to breach the dam, unlocking the 10,000-acre pool created along Putnam and Marion counties in the mid-1960s by the canal project. The St. Johns River Water Management District has been reviewing DEP permits for restoring the river and could rule this fall.

Supporters of the dam argue that only Florida's Legislature can determine the dam's fate. Lawmakers have sent mixed messages, however. On one hand, they've repeatedly turned down DEP requests for money to remove the dam. On the other, they turned back a bill this spring that would have designated the reservoir a recreational area, a measure that would have protected it. John Metcalf, a Jacksonville attorney who represents powerful developers such as the St. Joe Co. and the Winn-Dixie Davis family, provided free legal services for the pro-dam side in an earlier DEP permit attempt. The avid fisherman says he may do so again.

Florida Defenders of the Environment, which supports the river's restoration, argues that a 1996 ruling by Attorney General Bob Butterworth gives the DEP the right to proceed without a nod by lawmakers. But even if that position is upheld, DEP officials concede it will be a hollow victory without state money. A DEP study a few years ago estimated the costs of restoration at about $12 million.

Meanwhile, the federal government could make the whole issue moot if it compels Florida to restore the river. The U.S. Forest Service owns a small portion of the land and could use the Endangered Species Act as leverage.

Barring federal action, there's little sign of an end to the fracas soon. Even if the water management district rules in favor of allowing the DEP to proceed, proponents of the dam are ready with legal challenges. "We'll be out there fishing next Saturday and 5,000 Saturdays from now," says Mike Murtha, aide to state Sen. George Kirkpatrick, for whom the dam was renamed.

In the News

Alachua -- A proposed 1,700-acre industrial, commercial and residential complex is working its way through local and state approval processes. Waco Properties owns the land. Previously, Waco had given the city a discounted price on 250 acres the city bought for a Dollar General warehouse. In exchange, the city promised water and sewer lines for future Waco developments. The large-scale plan has critics wondering if the city didn't get the losing end of the bargain. The plan also has some residents concerned that the giant development will spoil the rural character of the area.

Archer -- As racehorse breeding season comes to an end next month, this rural community is contributing to the next generation. A new firm, EquiGen, started by University of Florida graduates, transfers fertilized eggs from champion horses into surrogate mares that carry them to term. Top female racers continue on the track without pregnancy interruptions. EquiGen said it had 16 contracts this season with plans to reach 50 in five years.

Gainesville -- When a Starbucks opened its first location here in early summer, protesters picketed the downtown cafe, alleging the chain exploits Third World coffee growers. The shop was vandalized twice. But the coffee retailer wasn't discouraged. It has opened a second shop at 4780 NW 39th Ave.

Green Cove Springs -- Sun State Marine Services, a subsidiary of Fort Lauderdale-based HMI, this summer completed the first in a series of cargo ships designed to pull into Caribbean ports with substandard facilities. The 190-foot freight vessel can even pull onto a beach to unload cargo.

Jacksonville -- Fisher Scientific International expects to seal its $843 million purchase of Jacksonville-based medical-equipment distributor PSS World Medical (Nasdaq-PSSI) this winter. That purchase price would give investors a 20% premium above PSS's stock price when the sale was announced earlier this summer. Fisher distributes science equipment and supplies to laboratories, hospitals, schools, researchers and government agencies, while PSS World Medical distributes medical products to physicians, long-term care providers and hospitals.

Koger Equity, a longtime developer of suburban office parks with 22 in its portfolio, is cutting three divisions and 20 of 72 positions at its corporate headquarters here. A new chief executive who took over last March orchestrated the downsizing.

An old BellSouth warehouse in the city's southern business district that was used to store spools of cable is being converted into a telecommunications carrier hotel, a facility leased to firms that need a high-tech loaded site for Internet servers. Chicago-based Cotel is refitting the 293,000-sq.-ft. building.

A plan to split Jacksonville Port Authority operations into two agencies has many critics. Ken Krauter, port president and CEO, says there's no proven benefit of separating aviation from marine operations. Meanwhile, a group led by the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission has a task force studying a possible reorganization. A PricewaterhouseCoopers' report said the change would cost $4 million upfront and $2.3 million annually. Proponents say it will pay for itself in increased air traffic and other improvements. But Krauter, highly regarded for his performance since coming to Jacksonville in 1996, says the claim isn't substantiated.

Lake City -- Construction company Anderson Columbia this summer purchased Panama City-based Florida Asphalt, whose 100 employees were expected to remain in the Panhandle. Anderson-Columbia, a 42-year-old firm with 850 workers, and Florida Asphalt, in operation 50 years, are among the state's oldest companies in their respective businesses.

Nassau County -- While the number of building permits for new single-family homes remained flat the first part of the year in northeast Florida, Nassau County saw a jump. Through May, the county issued 625 permits, up from 549 in the same period last year, according to the Northeast Florida Builders Association.