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Columbia County Economic Development: "Millions of dollars to pave a road to nowhere"

COLUMBIA COUNTY/LAKE CITY, FL –  Historically, economic development is something that happened in other places like Gainesville and Ocala, and minimally in Columbia County. The last meeting of the Economic Development Advisory Board is an indication why as the Board discussed the paving of county road, Bell Road. Lake City, City Manager Wendell Johnson commented on the County 5's (County Commission) prospect of spending millions of dollars to pave a dirt road that goes through the woods, "So we invest millions of dollars to pave a road to nowhere."

Stephen Douglas: "There's been a lot of discussion about Bell Road"

Board member Stephen Douglas kicked off the conversation about Bell Road, a dirt county road that goes through the woods, "There’s been a lot of discussion about Bell Road. Is it on? Is it off? Are they gonna pave it? Are we gonna be able to do any development?"

City Manager Wendell Johnson has concerns

Bell Road was paved in 2008 enough so that the Huddle House, owned by the County Manager's best friend, had a paved road leading to his restaurant. The paving ended right after the parking lot entrance.

Lake City, City Manager Wendell Johnson had concerns about the Bell Road Project. He asked, "Why and how has Bell Road been determined to be a strategic area for economic development? What is telling us that if we pave Bell Road people are going to line up to go down there and develop on Bell Road, which is just a path between 41 and 441. The issue that I’ve got is somebody has determined that Bell Road is strategically an economic area that will grow. I don’t know that. I am not convinced of that."

City Manager Johnson explained that there are exit ramps on I-10 to both 41 and 441, which is what Bell Road connects.

CM Johnson said, "It doesn’t make sense to me why anybody would want to cut down Bell Road. It just don’t add up... From the City’s perspective it’s risky when you don’t know what the potential is for return on investment. You do not build it and they will come when you are talking about millions of dollars of water and sewer infrastructure. You just don’t do that."

The County has to match DOT funding: A million dollars plus

Columbia County Economic Development Director Jessie Quillen said, "They are likely going to pave that road because they have some DOT funding to do it, although they have to match it."

City Manager Johnson added, "A million dollars."

Travelling west through the woods on Bell Road. Columbia County Economic Development Director Quillen, "I wouldn't be too caught up in it."

Director Quillen continued, "Although it remains a priority, in the future, I think that the cost of development is going to dictate that those investigating Bell Road will end up locating somewhere else. I wouldn’t be too caught up on it."

CM Johnson explained that County Manager Dale Williams went over the issues concerning the paving of Bell Road. Mr. Johnson said there were, “Environmental issues associated with wetlands and an abandoned land fill. That was the reason it was put on hold. Now, all of a sudden, there is no concern about that and we’re going to move forward and pave it anyway. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Another Columbia County "Give away?" and no planning

In 2008 Bell Road was paved just past the entrance of the Huddle House.

Steven Douglas explained what he thought was the County's plan. He said one theory was the County would purchase land along Bell Road so that the County could give it away as an incentive at a later date.

CM Johnson: "We don’t know the condition of the land on Bell Road. Until that has been determined and the questions answered, talking about paving or doing anything on Bell Road -- it’s just not the time for that."

Director Quillen responded, "In anticipation of the funding becoming available this time next year they (the County 5) expect the road to get paved."

City Manager Johnson kept the heat on, "The road’s gonna get paved without any of those concerns being addressed. Is that what I’m hearin? DOT is gonna fork out a million dollars and the County’s gonna match their million dollars?"

After some cross talk City Manager Johnson tried again.

Mr. Johnson: "Our tax dollars -- DOT’s funding with our tax dollars -- is put into paving Bell Road, which fronts private property. Columbia County -- my tax dollars -- matches -- a million dollars is what I’ve heard -- with the vision that at some point we’re gonna have a business come in and want to develop there and then we’re gonna buy the land from them and we’re to deal with this company. I understand all that."

Mr. Johnson continued, “Here’s where I have the problem. We don’t know the land is gonna be suitable for development because there’s been no environmental assessment done... I’m thinkin we just gettin the cart before the horse. We’re investin a lot of money without doin due diligence. You don’t invest all that money and then find out that maybe none of that land is suitable for development."

Steven Douglas said that at the present time “there is no intention for us to purchase property.”

City Manager Johnson summed it up, "So we invest millions of dollars to pave a road to nowhere."

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