FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

North Central: Fueling the Future

North Central Florida
Demographics for the North Central Region can be found at Business Florida's interactive map of Florida.
Regional Assets

• Central Florida Community College
• Lake City Community College
• North Florida

Community College
• Santa Fe College
• University of Florida

• Gainesville Regional Airport
• Ocala International Airport
It’s sad but true: rural communities frequently lose their “best and brightest” to more enticing urban locations. Clay Bethea, a 7th-generation Floridian, is bucking that trend.

After earning an undergraduate degree (and playing football) at the University of Central Florida, then pursuing graduate studies in mechanical engineering at Auburn, Bethea was on a ???career path that could have taken him just about anywhere. He came home instead to Perry, Florida, where for the last 14 years, he has worked for Buckeye Technologies, a major producer of cellulose from slash pine.

Headquartered in Perry, Buckeye’s Florida operation directly employs 580 people. Another 1,000-plus jobs have been created through vendor relationships that support the local plant’s operations. From his vantage point as Buckeye’s wood sustainability business development manager, Bethea believes those already-impressive job numbers are about to change for the better, and here’s why.

In 2007, Bethea saw a request for proposals from the University of Florida for a pilot facility to determine the feasibility of making ethanol from plant and wood cellulose. The technology, developed under the direction of UF Distinguished Professor Dr. Lonnie Ingram, could potentially reduce our nation’s dependence on petroleum.

“Ethanol produced from corn is too expensive,” says Bethea. “You just can’t meet the demand using a food product.” But, he says, every living plant contains cellulose, and by growing managed crops specifically for ethanol production, a sustainable source of the raw material can be readily and cost effectively maintained.

Clay Bethea
Energy cane grown by Buckeye Technologies near Perry will provide new sources of nonfood biomass for the University of Florida’s pilot bio refinery. Clay Bethea expects the resulting research to identify processes that will make the ethanol produced from cellulosic products a cost-effective alternative to petroleum.
“I knew this pilot plant was the opportunity of a lifetime and could mean true economic sustainability for Taylor County,” says Bethea.

Buckeye submitted a proposal and was ultimately awarded the $20-million pilot plant project in June 2009. State funding will support construction; a $25-million grant for operations is pending with the U.S. Department of Energy.

And now Bethea is excited on two fronts: about the opportunities available to Buckeye and about the role he’ll be playing in creating economic sustainability for Perry, Florida. “I’m gratified to be helping my hometown,” he says.


Home-grown success: Intellon, world leader in consumer-friendly “no more wires” technology using integrated circuits (ICs) to interconnect home entertainment and business systems, is adding 10 new positions with average annual salaries of $100,000. The company’s continued growth on a site adjacent to the new branch of the Pensacola-based Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) makes downtown Ocala an attractive location for similar high-tech companies.

“We’re the best-kept secret out there,” says Intellon’s CEO Charlie Harris. “We are world leaders at what we do .... Our ICs enable people to move audio and video throughout their homes without stringing additional wires.”

Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, Intellon has sold more than 36 million ICs — nearly 12 million in 2008 alone. At a time when many companies are struggling to survive, Intellon is experiencing phenomenal growth, posting a 44% increase in revenues from 2007 to 2008.

Ocala’s proximity to the University of Florida in Gainesville allows Intellon to tap into some of the best and brightest talent available. Many of the students who have participated in co-op programs have subsequently joined Intellon’s full-time professional staff. Quality of life is one reason they stay.

Says Senior Engineer Adil Hussain, “I really enjoy the beauty of the area and the many outdoor activities available, but it’s also so close to Orlando and Tampa that you have access to everything.”

Likewise, CFO Brian McGee has lived all over the world, but loves calling Ocala home. “It’s great here. Outdoor activities like golf and tennis are great, but it’s the depth of our friendships and relationships that we really enjoy.”

More high-tech growth: City and county governments and Enterprise Florida are partnering with defense contractor Lockheed Martin in an $11-million expansion of its Ocala plant, a project that will add 125 high-wage jobs. Named 2008 Manufacturer of the Year by the Manufacturers Association of Florida, Lockheed Martin’s Ocala facility manufactures electronic assemblies for commercial, defense and space applications and performs assembly and testing for various Missiles and Fire Control programs.

Girl with horseFrom Waste to Wattage

Talented individuals throughout this region are working with corporations, or singly as entrepreneurs, to help spawn true alternative energy solutions:

» In Florida’s horse country (Marion County), the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association (FTBOA) is partnering with MaxWest Environmental Systems to design, build and operate a renewable energy facility that turns horse waste and other biodegradables into electricity. A $2.5-million grant from the Florida Energy and Climate Commission will be used toward the purchase of equipment for the facility that is expected to turn approximately 50,000 tons per year of stall waste and 50,000 tons per year of wood and organic waste into 10.5 megawatts of renewable energy. The project will create at least 24 permanent employment opportunities in the area’s $3.5-billion horse industry

» Entrepreneurs Chris Morrison and Bruce Chovnic of Planet Green Solutions in Fairfield have developed a biomass gasification system for individual horse farm owners. The process will turn the farm’s stall waste into electricity to run the farm. Any excess power generated can be sold back to the electric utility through the existing grid system.

» The City of Gainesville and Gainesville Regional Utilities have entered into an agreement with American Renewables to convert yard, forest and pulp wood plant waste into electricity. The company’s planned 100-megawatt biomass plant in Alachua County is expected to cost $400-$500 million and will create as many as 350 temporary and 45 permanent jobs.


HyGreen™ system
Developed at the University of Florida, the HyGreen™ system ensures that healthcare workers’ hands are clean. [Photo: Xhale]
Quicker technology transfer: The Gainesville Council for Economic Outreach (CEO) is capitalizing on the University of Florida’s presence in Alachua County. CEO is working closely with UF’s Department of Patents and Licensing to ensure that the results of the innovative, high-tech research under way in campus laboratories gets quickly into the marketplace by way of local and regional businesses.

One example is Xhale, whose CEO Richard Allen says his company currently owns and/or licenses about 30 patents from UF researchers. The latest product — HyGreen — is designed to solve the recurring healthcare problem of germ transfer by dirty hands. The HyGreen system employs a combination of hand wash stations with sensors and monitors beside each patient bed and special badges worn by healthcare workers. The badges light up to assure the patient that an employee’s hands have been washed, and vibrate to remind the worker if the precaution has not been taken.


Improved access to healthcare: Residents of Dixie, Levy and Gilchrist counties are looking forward to plans being finalized for a Tri-County Hospital to serve their healthcare needs closer to home. AMERIS Health System, based in Nashville, Tenn., is making plans to construct the $53-million facility in Chiefland.

Gearing up for growth: Although construction on Progress Energy’s new nuclear power plant in Levy County has been delayed pending environmental impact studies, programs are already under way to prepare for anticipated changes in community dynamics. Team Levy, a group of business and community leaders, is seeking ways to attract and retain businesses in the area, and Workforce Connection, which coordinates employment and training services in Citrus, Levy and Marion counties, is gearing up to prepare workers for jobs related to the plant’s construction and operation.

Preserving the environment: Always conscious and protective of their area’s ideally pristine environment, Gilchrist County volunteers have joined with Pure Water Wilderness on a “Suwannee River Clean Up.” Stretching from White Springs to the town of Suwannee on the Gulf coast, the Suwannee River offers 170 miles of scenic adventure.


Improving connections: A contract has been awarded to begin the survey work on a perimeter road that will connect two major roadways — U.S. 129 and U.S. 90 — in Suwannee County’s northeastern sector. The new road is planned to ease the burden of anticipated increases in commercial traffic due to development at the county’s new industrial park, East 90 Commerce Center.

Industrial park planned: Officials in Lafayette County are finalizing details on a $300,000 grant proposal to construct a new industrial/commerce park.


Gone solar: Ambient Air Services Inc., an environmental consulting firm, has switched from traditional sources to the sun to provide all of the electricity needed to power its headquarters facility in Starke; any excess power will be sold back to the city of Starke. “For over 30 years, AASI has incorporated leading technology and engineering into our business,” says Joseph Cooksey, company president and CEO. “Solar power is an innovative and responsible way for us to be good corporate partners not only within Bradford County and Florida, but nationally as well.”

Getting connected: Bradford and Union counties are partnering with other members of the 14-county North Florida Regional Planning Council to secure broadband access for rural areas in the region.


Catalyst sites on tap: Columbia County officials are working to bring three light manufacturing projects to the county, with the potential of creating 400 jobs. Work also continues with the North Florida Economic Development Partnership to develop one of two catalyst sites in the 14-county North Central RACEC (Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern). Plans call for the development of the Columbia County site as an inland port, which would play a vital role in distribution channels for Florida’s strong international trade.

Retail excellence: Baya Pharmacy in Lake City was presented with the 2009 Retailer of the Year Award for Leadership (ROYAL) by the Florida Retail Federation.


Biomass is big: Hamilton County is working with two companies on separate biomass plant projects:

  • Duke Energy/ADAGE plans to con-struct a 50-megawatt biopower plant in the region. “We are pleased to partner with Hamilton County as it considers becoming the first community to host an ADAGE renewable energy facility,” says Reed Wills, president of ADAGE, “and we are committed to developing a project that benefits the whole community.”
  • American Renewables, which is constructing a biomass plant in Alachua County, also plans to build a 100-megawatt facility on the PCS Phosphate Mines property in Hamilton.


Prime location: With four interchanges on Interstate 10, Madison County provides easy access and plenty of ready-to-develop land for companies looking to grow. Two businesses have already found homes at I-10 interchanges: Love’s Travel Stop & Country Store employs approximately 60 people; another 100 people work at Fast Track Travel Center.

New construction: In January 2009, the county board of commissioners approved a bid in excess of $888,000 and soon began construction of a new library in Lee. Also under construction: a new Emergency Operations Center in Madison on five acres of land donated by the city.