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Hub-less in Flagler County
The fastest-growing county in Florida is still
looking for a commercial center.

The ITT Corp. platted 46,000 homesites in Flagler County starting in the early 1970s and largely controlled the inner workings of the county for decades. But ITT's plans for big retirement developments never took off: Less than a quarter of those 46,000 lots have homes on them, and ITT all but bailed out of the county three years ago to pursue casino-related projects.

Since then, other developers have come to Flagler. Palm Coast Holdings, owned by Minnesota Power Co., is building a new hospital and office park on former ITT land off Interstate 95 north of Flagler County Airport. Los Angeles-based Lowe Corp. has 200-plus upscale golf community homes under way in one enclave, and construction of a second golf course was to begin July 1.

But no real commercial center has ever emerged. The county's largest community, Palm Coast, a 106-square-mile swath between U.S. 1 and the Intercoastal Waterway, isn't even incorporated, although a vote on the issue is planned for September. Until recently, many of Palm Coast's 35,000 residents (70% of Flagler's total population) traveled 23 miles south to Daytona Beach or 23 miles north to St. Augustine just for groceries. The population, growing at 5% annually, the fastest rate in the state, is dominated by retirees and the low-wage service workers who cater to them. In Palm Coast and throughout Flagler, small clusters of homes are separated by long stretches of palmetto scrub, which caught fire last summer and forced the evacuation of the entire county.

Local economic development proponents say they're determined to create a hub. Committee of 100 Executive Director Lenny Fries is pushing a plan to revitalize the county's tiny, rundown municipal airport through a partnership of sorts with a New York-based developer, the Passavia Group. Jim Passavia, head of the development group, splits his time between Long Island, New York, and a home in Jupiter. The developer wants to lease the land around the airport to build an aviation and transportation vocational training center, a culinary school and an office park. The airport, which only serves small private planes, supports a few small aviation businesses and some decrepit hangars and abandoned storage units. The county can't chip in for new infrastructure, but, according to Fries, it could give a cheap long-term lease to the Passavia Group, which would get exclusive development rights. Under current plans, the county wouldn't spend any money and would get $1 per square foot for occupied space. Jim Manfre with Passavia says that could mean as much as $8 million a year for Flagler - eventually. Passavia would secure its own financing, though it's looking for public grants or contributions. The plans are winding through local government and also require a nod from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Meanwhile, some residents, such as Jerry Schatz, who fought many battles against ITT development, believe that despite ITT's pullout, developers still run the show in Flagler. The second Lowe golf course has prompted heated exchanges between development proponents and some long-time residents still stinging from the county commission's decision last year to give Lowe most of a 33-acre oceanfront public park in exchange for uncleared land to the north. Syd Crosby, clerk of the circuit court and former commissioner, fought the trade. "You would think that there would be some surety in public lands," he says.
County planner Ken Koch offers a different point of view. He says the deal was a boon for the county. According to Koch, not only will the public still have ocean access through the land given to Lowe, but the county gained 15 additional oceanfront acres, 317,000 acres of undeveloped land that can be set aside for public conservation and $1 million to develop a new park.

Perhaps one day the community that ITT envisioned but failed to achieve will take shape. "They've been struggling to become a full-service community," says Brian Teeple, executive director of the Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council. "I think they'll get there."

In the News

Atlantic Beach - In one of the first land deals in the sweeping Jacksonville Preservation Project, Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville officials joined up to buy a small Intracoastal Waterway peninsula in Atlantic Beach near a Native American archeological site. The peninsula was slated for a housing project. Under consolidated city-county government, Atlantic Beach is part of Jacksonville-Duval County, but also has its own government.

Clay County - Major new shopping centers are planned for Orange Park and Middleburg along Blanding Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in both communities. The Goodman Co., a West Palm Beach developer, plans to complete the projects next year.

Fernandina Beach - Residents started moving into northeast Florida's first neo-traditional community, Amelia Park, this spring. The new neighborhood, based on turn-of-the-century design features, could have up to 421 residences once completed.

Jacksonville - Dulles, Va.-based Internet provider America Online has begun jockeying for public incentives. The largest of its five customer service call centers is here, employing 1,700. With three years left on a seven-year lease, AOL says it may stay or go elsewhere. Economic development officials are busy lining up incentives.

Edward Waters College, Florida's oldest historically black college, has received a $1 million Lilly Endowment-United Negro College Fund program grant. The small, private college is emerging from a beleaguered financial condition and has been drawing more corporate support, including about $500,000 from CSX Transportation.

Jacksonville's gain is Gainesville's loss. Charlotte, N.C.-based department store chain Belk Inc. is moving the site of its regional headquarters, which administers 47 stores in Florida, part of Georgia and South Carolina, to Jacksonville.

Florida Coastal School of Law, the newest law school in the state, received provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association and is expected to get the nod on full accreditation later this year.

The University of North Florida, which often struggles to compete with other state institutions for in-demand degree programs and legislative funding, got the go-ahead to begin civil and mechanical engineering programs, a move lauded by local businesses.

The JEA (Jacksonville Electric Authority) plans to begin construction this fall on a new $200 million power plant near Baldwin if regulatory permits are approved.

Two former Wayne Huizenga proteges and three other partners picked this market to launch and test a new product, Car Spa - a car wash, lube job and auto accessories center that is packaged with a newsstand, indoor-outdoor cafe and children's play area. The Fort Lauderdale firm plans a second Car Spa in Atlanta this fall.

Levy County - Nature Coast Industries is the front-runner among Florida clam farmers. The governor recently allotted the company 18 more underwater aquaculture leases; it now controls 57 acres of off-shore Levy County, where it produces cultured clams for restaurants. Most clammers are individuals working one or two acres; other large operations have only 10 to 20 acres.

St. Augustine - The Florida Department of Transportation is expected to decide the fate of the landmark Bridge of Lions this fall. Proponents of replacing the bridge say it interferes with commercial barge traffic.

Northrop Grumman Corp.'s 1,700 employees here got a reprieve. The operation was awarded a $1.3 billion federal contract that runs through 2006 to assemble 21 E-2C Hawkeye radar surveillance aircraft.

Environmentalists herald a newly opened rustic central Florida retreat as a model for combining ecology and profitable tourism. The Refuge at Ocklawaha opened last month on a 55-acre Marion County tract. It's inside a 4,000-acre St. Johns Water Management District swath of land along the Ocklawaha River that's being restored after decades of muck farming. A few months ago, the project was in jeopardy after $1.9 million in initial funding from the Pew Charitable Trust ran out; The Florida Audubon Society, designated to set up the facility, couldn't get it off the ground. But internationally known eco-tourism guru Stanley Selengut stepped in to resurrect the project at the eleventh hour. He got additional financing, about $400,000 so far, from California real estate company Excel Legacy Corp. to finish up 18 guest cabins, with more on the way. Selengut and Excel Legacy have a 40-60 ownership arrangement in a for-profit entity that leases the property for $42,000 a year, with a portion of future profits going to conservation. The Refuge is being marketed to serious naturalists, bird-watchers and tourists wanting an off-the-beaten-path getaway. Refuge managers reported last month that cabins were about 20% booked for the initial months of operation, during the hot Florida summer. But promoters are optimistic the site will later achieve far more than the 35% occupancy needed to break-even.