North Central is one of Florida’s strongest economic development regions … and with good reason. Home to the University of Florida, the nation’s 6th top-ranked public university and 11th most prolific patent earner in the world, North Central is a natural magnet for talent. Many of the young men and women who first came here as students grow to like this place so much, they put down permanent roots, becoming homeowners, employees and entrepreneurs. For companies with customers and suppliers spread far and wide, North Central offers seamless road and rail connections throughout the Southeastern U.S., as well as ready access to two of Florida’s busiest deep-water ports.
Innovation & Technology
Much of the innovation taking place in Florida’s North Central region is rooted at the University of Florida. In FY2020, despite a two-month pause in most research activities due to the pandemic, UF research spending rose to a record $942.2 million, according to the National Science Foundation. Spending on projects supported by the federal government increased to $397.2 million; state and local expenditures rose to $169.2 million.
University of Florida faculty earned $861 million in research awards in FY2021, the bulk of which — $602 million — came from the federal government. Primary UF recipients of the awards included the College of Medicine in Gainesville; the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering; and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
And helping innovators move their discoveries from conception to commercialization are two UF-supported incubators — The Hub, in downtown Gainesville, and Sid Martin Biotech in nearby Alachua.
In other tech news:
• UF has begun constructing its 263,000-sq.-ft. Malachowsky Hall for Data Science & Information Technology, which aims to foster collaboration by connecting students and researchers across disciplines. Anticipated opening: April 2023.
• The University of Florida’s new supercomputer — HiPerGator AI — which began running in January 2021 is getting great reviews. Top500, which ranks high-power computing systems worldwide, named it the nation’s No. 1 most energy efficient computer.
• Ology Bioservices, Alachua-based developer of vaccines, antibodies and viral products, has received nearly $200 million in contract awards to support the U.S. Department of Defense’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Ology is constructing a 43,000-sq.-ft. facility adjacent to its headquarters and will hire 130-150 employees.
• Concept Companies, a national real estate development firm based in Gainesville, plans to build Momentum Labs in the city of Alachua with the goal of providing fully furnished and equipped laboratories for biotech companies in the early stages of development. Construction of a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility is expected in late 2021.
KEY PLAYERS: Axogen, Alachua; ELISA Technologies, Gainesville; Exactech, Gainesville; Ology Bioservices, Alachua; ThermoFisher Scientific, Alachua
Logistics and Distribution
Companies looking to grow their logistics and distribution capabilities will find much to like about North Central Florida. I-75 bisects the region on its way north from Miami to Atlanta, and Gainesville is the halfway point. Another hour to the north, at Lake City, is I-10, providing ready access east to Jacksonville and west through Pensacola and on to New Orleans. Also in reasonably close proximity: JaxPort (80 miles to the northeast) and Port Tampa Bay (130 miles to the south).
FedEx was among the first to take advantage of this region’s ready accessibility by opening a distribution center at Ocala/Marion County Commerce Park just off I-75 in 2016, followed by a 10,000-sq.-ft. delivery center two years later. Then along came AutoZone with a 400,000-sq.-ft. distribution facility to serve 290+ retail stores throughout Florida and Puerto Rico, followed by online pet products retailer Chewy.com with a 600,000-sq.-ft. distribution center. Subsequently, North Carolina-based Red Rock Developments built the 617,000-sq.-ft. Florida Crossroads Logistics Center in Ocala where e-commerce giant Amazon was quick to settle in. And in Gainesville, Amazon operates a delivery station with 50 employees and there’s a new 42,000-sq.-ft. FedEx distribution facility at the Airport Industrial Park north of Gainesville Regional Airport.
Fast forward to 2021: Red Rock has announced plans to build a second and even bigger distribution center next door — the 1,085,280-sq.-ft. Florida Crossroads Logistics Phase II — with an estimated completion date of mid-2021.
KEY PLAYERS: Amazon, Seattle, Wa.; Chewy.com, Dania Beach; Dollar Tree, Charlotte, N.C.; FedEx Ground, Coraopolis, Pa.
Goods manufactured in Florida’s North Central region include everything from medical equipment and supplies, industrial chemicals, and HVAC air control devices to fire trucks, decorative fences and stackable potato chips. And according to a recent survey to assess the state of manufacturing in Florida, Ocala’s manufacturing industry registered the fastest rate of growth among all metro areas in Florida.
Among recent developments in this sector:
• Lockheed Martin’s Ocala Operations facility is the recipient of a $49-million contract from the U.S. Navy for the production of components used in its F/A-18 infrared search and tracking system. Lockheed Martin’s Ocala Operations facility is a 393,000-sq.-ft. system assembly and high-rate production site for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control (MFC).
• The Georgia-Pacific Foley Cellulose Mill near Perry has returned to full operation and rehired some 70 positions, after idling two of three production lines and cutting its workforce by 30% during the pandemic. GP Foley is Taylor County’s largest private employer.
• Signature Brands, the maker of Easter egg coloring kits, cake decorations and popcorn-filled gift tins, continues to grow its presence in Marion County with plans to build a 200,000-sq.-ft. warehouse on 16 acres near Ocala International Airport.
• Ocala-based fire apparatus manufacturer E-ONE has expanded its reach into Tennessee as its former dealer, Mid-South Emergency Equipment, is acquired by Safe Industries, which serves the fire service and industrial markets in the Carolinas and Tennessee. E-ONE is a leading manufacturer of emergency vehicles, rescue trucks and custom fire apparatus.
KEY PLAYERS: E-ONE, Ocala; Georgia Pacific Foley, Perry; Lockheed Martin, Bethesda, Md.; R & J Manufacturing, Gainesville; Signature Brands, Ocala; Stahl-Meyer Foods, Madison
With plenty of sunshine and wide-open spaces, North Central Florida continues to draw interest in solar energy development.
Duke Energy Florida opened its first North Central universal solar plant — the Perry Solar Facility in Taylor County — in October 2016. Four years later, at another North Central site — Columbia Solar Power Plant in Fort White — workers would install Duke’s one millionth solar panel in Florida. Between 2016 and 2021, Duke has constructed solar power plants in five North Central counties — Columbia, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Suwanee and Taylor — and it’s not finished yet.
In July 2021, Duke announced plans to build four new solar sites in Florida, three of which will be located in Florida’s North Central region: the Hildreth Solar Power Plant on 635 acres in Suwanee County; the Hardeetown Solar Power Plant on 650 acres in Levy County; and the High Springs Solar Power Plant on 700 acres in Alachua County.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, Florida’s largest generator of solar energy — Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light Co. — has surpassed the 40% mark in its “30-by-30” plan to install 30 million solar panels by 2030. Of its three dozen solar facilities currently operating across the Sunshine State, two are in Florida’s North Central Region: Horizon Solar Energy Center, which opened in 2018 to serve Alachua and Putnam counties, and Sunshine Gateway Solar Energy Center located in Columbia County. And coming to this region from FPL: Union Springs Solar Energy Center, the first facility of its kind in North Central’s Union County.
KEY PLAYERS: Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C.; Florida Power & Light Co., Juno Beach
Life & Leisure
Walk on the Wild Side
North Central’s 13 counties offer tons of outdoor recreational options. This part of Florida is famous for its natural springs, and you can enjoy them without getting wet aboard a glass-bottom boat at Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, Silver Springs in Ocala. And while you’re in the neighborhood, check out the amenities at Florida’s newest state park, Gilchrist Blue Springs or take a hike in the Ocala National Forest, but do keep a sharp eye out — this is black bear country! And by all means, catch a glimpse of old Florida with a stop along the Gulf Coast in Cedar Key. Just be sure to save room for a bowl of the award-winning clam chowder at Tony’s. It’s worth the drive!
Enjoy Urban Delights
Gainesville gets high marks as a great college town, but with so much to see and do on and off campus it’s also a good place to settle down. Sites of interest on the UF campus include the Florida Museum of Natural History where general admission is free, but the Butterfly Rainforest is not. Don’t miss it or the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art just next door. Also of interest in and around Gainesville: the Cade Museum for Creativity & Invention; the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo; and 15 minutes to the south of Gainesville, the town of Micanopy, Florida’s self-proclaimed antiques capital with dozens of shops to explore.
The jewel in North Central’s educational crown remains, as always, the University of Florida. One of three designated “Preeminent State Research Universities” by the Florida Board of Governors and No. 7 nationwide in 2020-21 for most Fulbright U.S. scholars, UF is both a catalyst for research and economic development and a superior source of distance learning. In its 2021 “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs” category, U.S. News & World Report awarded the No. 3 position to the University of Florida. UF Online also earned the No. 2 for “Best Online Bachelor’s Program for Veterans” and the No. 1 for “Best Online Bachelor’s in Business Programs.”
UF is a stand-out in traditional learning methods, too. In 2020, a survey by U.S. News & World Report put the University of Florida’s graduate schools among the state’s best in seven categories: Law (No. 21); Education (No. 23); Business (No. 26); Doctor of Nursing Practice (No. 36); Research Medicine (No. 36); Engineering (No. 45); and Primary Care Medicine (No. 51).
Other facilities serving this region’s higher educational needs include:
• Central College of Florida offering associates and bachelor’s degrees at its main campus in Ocala and at satellite campuses in Levy and Citrus counties.
• Florida Gateway College in Lake City, providing 60+ programs ranging from bachelor’s and associates degrees in the humanities, business, education and health sciences to single-semester occupational certificates that train students in high-demand occupations such as welding, fire fighting, commercial heating and air conditioning, cosmetology, practical nursing and phlebotomy.
• North Florida College with campuses in Madison and Live Oak offering a B.S. in nursing, Associate in Arts transfer degree, Associate in Science degree as well as certificate programs in more than 15 specialty occupations.
• Santa Fe College in Gainesville, known for its teaching zoo and offering nine bachelor’s degrees in addition to associate degrees and certificates in 13 broad areas of study.
Out of the 5,000 total hospitals assessed in any given year, UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville was named No. 2 best in Florida, earning Top 50 rankings in six specialties: ear, nose & throat (No. 32); urology (No. 32); pulmonology & lung surgery (No. 37); geriatrics (No. 42); gynecology (No. 45); and cardiology and heart surgery (No. 50.). And what’s even more impressive, its sister facility — UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital — earned Top 50 rankings in eight pediatric specialties, including a No. 7 in cardiology and heart surgery; a No. 12 in diabetes & endocrinology; and a No. 21 in pulmonology & lung surgery.
Also making news:
• North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville opened its new Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in April 2021. Elevation from Level II to Level III — the second highest designation available for a NICU — deepens NFRMC’s ability to care for the smallest and sickest infants born in North Central Florida.