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After Generations of Economic Underdevelopment: Will Columbia County Turn a Corner?

Posted March 24, 2015  10:40 am | updated April 3, 2014  02:40 pm*

Economic Development Dir. Hunter explains Project Sandra.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Yesterday morning at 10:00 am, Columbia County's Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) met for a special meeting called by Economic Development Director, Glenn Hunter. The purpose of the meeting: discuss economic development incentives which will cost Columbia County millions; the payback: jobs. This article deals with one of those projects, code name: Project Sandra.

Economic Development Dir. Hunter announced that Project Sandra was brought to Columbia County at the last minute by Enterprise Florida (EFI).

Mr. Hunter said, "The first project, Sandra, is requesting that the County make a decision within about a week or two so that they can break ground in May. They have a capital investment of about $8.8 million, 60 jobs at around 28,000 [dollars a year]. They are looking for a shovel ready site. They came to us within the last week. They are very aggressive. They need rail. Thirty percent of their product moves on rail."

Lots of Trucks – Intermodal Park Nixed

Mr. Hunter said, "They ship out to companies – 5 to 6000 trucks. One of the things that was a concern to them was the path of the product through town. They did not want to have trucks moving through the town. They wanted to skirt the City [Lake City]."

Mr. Hunter continued, "Of course, the Intermodal Park is not in a timeline that would facilitate what they are trying to do. As you know, we've got a lot of build up there, still to get in place to meet a guideline like this. We looked at the site [County owned] next to New Millennium."

This site is on the north side of the infamous Bascom Norris Bypass to No-Where. Presently, trucks would have to travel east on U.S. 90 from I-75 to reach the Bypass, which passes  in front of Walmart and Lowes on a two lane road to reach the site. The County and FL DOT are working on a drive around, but the time frame is uncertain.

The Competition

Economic Development Director Hunter said, "We are in competition with Valdosta (GA) and a couple of other local counties who match up along the CSX line. If it would be in Valdosta, it would be a Norfolk line, with a direct shot to the Port of Savannah."

Mr. Hunter did not mention the other Florida counties in the running.

The Incentives

Nature boardwalk, New Zealand. Sunbelt products can be seen here.

A Google search, using clues mentioned by Mr. Hunter and EDAB Board member, FPL's Jeff Simmons, revealed that the company is Sunbelt Forest Products, Corp., a major player in treated lumber and supplier of Lowes.

According to Mr. Hunter, the company is looking for the County to donate the land for their facility; waive County fees; and deliver a shovel ready site.

Mr. Hunter explained that the site needs a survey and a wetlands specialist for the assessment of retention ponds and wetlands. He said this would be an immediate $10k cost.

Before Mr. DePratter opened the floor for questions, Mr. Hunter concluded his remarks [as stated]:  "We also might, because of the essence and time -- this was the only discovery that we had that could be potentially, while we move forward with this process, some other things might be revealed to us and could maybe make some alternative change. But this is the recommendation right now."

Questions: "Are we the last second choice?"

EDAB member and Business Owner Glenn Owens asked, "Are there any environmental concerns?"

Mr. Hunter answered, "Potentially, there could be, and that would stop the process. We're still communicating with them. This company has communicated to others that they are crystal clean."

Mr. Hunter continued, "I've seen the site. It's a very impressive site. And they have very good contracts."

Long time Board member Marc Vann questioned the short notice, "An $8.8 million investment. Are we a last second choice because something fell through? That's too much money to just appear one day and need an answer the next."

Mr. Hunter answered, "It's not the next day. [It's] within two weeks."

He explained what he thought was driving the project, "They are going to build a project in one of these communities, be it Valdosta or one of these North Florida communities... They left one other city to come here for our meeting."

Chairman DePratter during yesterday's EDAB meeting.

Mr. Vann had concerns, "This had to be something in play for a while if it's a $9 million factory that they're fixin' to build. That's my concern."

Mr. Hunter explained the football factor:  "A couple of the guys have played football for Paul Quinn. I played football for Paul Quinn. We had to do a sidebar for about 30 minutes."

Mr. Hunter said, "Logistically, this area meets the criteria for the investment they want to make."

It is not clear if the 30 acre site is large enough.

Mr. Hunter explained the utility use, "They use about 6,000,000 gallons of water a year. That's not a large number and their power requirements are very minimal.... EFI is working on the state incentive for the rail and is familiar with what the needs are here."

Chairman DePratter wanted to know about waiving permit fees for water and sewer hookups.

Lake City would be providing the utility services to the proposed site. City Manager Wendell Johnson, an EDAB member was not at the meeting and did not send a representative.

Mr. Hunter said it wouldn't be an issue unless he missed something.

Board member Stephen Douglas asked how much in fees would be waived?

County Manager Dale Williams said it would be tens of thousands.

What's Next?

Mr. Vann wanted to know if the Board was supposed to recommend moving forward with an agreement or recommend looking into the project.

Mr. DePratter said, "We need some time to dig into this."

Jeff Simmons wanted The 5 to begin negotiating.

Board member Jeff Simmons ignored Chairman DePratter.

Mr. Simmons jumped in and recommended that The 5 negotiate a development agreement, immediately.

Your reporter asked the value of the property. The estimate was $500,000.

The Advisory Board unanimously approved Mr. Simmons' motion that the County 5 negotiate a development agreement with the company.


At 11:45 am, shortly after the Economic Development Advisory Board meeting concluded, Chairman DePratter called a meeting of the County 5 to discuss Project Sandra, as well as Project Crystal Clear. That meeting will be on March 31 at 2 pm in the auditorium of the School Board Administrative Complex.

*Photos: public domain | Sunbelt product photos removed at the request of Sunbelt Forest Product's Cliff Daniels, Fence Sales


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