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Suncoast Extension Arrives at TDC: Chamber Director Looking for 'Money' for Study – Sort Of

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The M-CORES (Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance) found its way onto the Tourist Development Council (TDC) agenda Tuesday afternoon. Chamber Director Theresa Pinto, with a little help from hotel mogul and TDC member Nick Patel, came to the TDC looking for money for a study of the proposed Suncoast Extension, which is one of the three proposed toll roads in the M-CORES project.

Background

Satellite image of Florida with major roads and proposed Suncoast extension
Proposed path of the Suncoast Extension.             Click here to enlarge

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Council of 100, Florida Ports Council, Asphalt Contractors Association, Associated Industries of Florida, and more got behind a 12th hour 20 plus billion dollar Florida toll road expansion at the end of the last legislative session.

While there are three proposed toll roads, the one that affects north and north central Florida directly is the Suncoast expansion, in which DOT's study area is the following counties: Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Lafayette, Gilchrist, Dixie, Levy, and Citrus.

The road does not go through Columbia County.

TDC

Nick Patel: Hotel mogul and TDC member
Nick Patel.

TDC member and hotel mogul Nick Patel spoke to the TDC about the Suncoast Extension.

He said, "We've been reading a lot of articles on it." He explained that the Department of Transportation has a year to study the road construction and a taskforce was established to study the issue.

Mr. Patel then introduced Chamber of Commerce Director Theresa Pinto to explain what the Chamber plans to do about the Suncoast Extension.

"We are not in opposition..."

Ms. Pinto told the TDC: "We came up with three actions. One is to form a coalition to reach out to our counterparts... Two is to reach out to the Florida Chamber, DOT and whoever else we need to and make them aware that we are not coming out in opposition to this project, but we are proactively engaged and we want to make sure – that we mediate potential risks and that we educate and get the data specific for Columbia County and any other county that wants to participate... Third is the economic impact study. We would like to fund an economic impact study specifically for Columbia County."

Ms. Pinto continued, "The Chamber Board has approved putting money towards this. [The Chamber] Business and Economic Development Board has approved putting money towards this..." The Chamber also wants the City and County to contribute to the funding of the study.

"This is going to hurt us. What are you going to do for us?"

Theresa Pinto: Columbia County/Lake City Chamber of Commerce director
Columbia County/Lake City Chamber of Commerce Director Theresa Pinto.

"We asked Nick [Patel] if he could bring it for TDC to consider also putting money towards the Economic Impact Study for Columbia County."

Ms. Pinto explained that she has reached out to the Florida Chamber of Commerce and to District 2 FLDOT and that incoming Chamber president, Mike Williams, is seeking a proposal from Florida State to do the study.

FSU is known as a conduit for taking public money and converting into studies.

Mr. Patel added, "I went to Alachua County and I presented what I think needs to happen. They are supporting my view."

Mr. Patel explained that the Suncoast Extension "will affect all businesses, not only hotels. ... I don't think the state of Florida took that in to account when they made the decision. We need to make them aware. This is going to hurt us. What are you going to do for us? That is where we are heading."

Mr. Patel said, "If you really put the dollar numbers together, we've invested about $145 million all along I-75." He did not say who the "we" are or how he came up with the number.

No Money Down Now, Agreeing on Future Funding

Mr. Patel said, "Theresa is not asking for any dollar amount at this point. She's asking that we agree on funding some portion of the economic impact study."

Ms. Pinto followed up, "I think it's important that we do get the support – the verbal support – an agreement - from the TDC that they feel an economic impact study is necessary and a good investment."

TDC Director Paula Vann, without missing a beat, "Absolutely. 100 percent."

Ms. Vann is not a member of the TDC, she is County staff.

TDC member Napur Shukla, representing campgrounds in Columbia County, "I support it 100 percent."

Ms. Vann asked for a motion.

City Councilwoman Melinda Moses, chairing the meeting, said, "To support it and a dollar amount will come later."

Ms. Vann added, "Then I would send a letter."

Ms. Moses asked, "It that what you would like?"

Ms. Vann followed up, "You're requesting I send a letter of support, that we would support this project – to get in touch about the money later."

The motion passed unanimously.

What About the Environment?
"Economic can mean a lot of different things."

Your reporter asked, "Are you looking at the environment at all, or are you only looking at butts in beds."

Napur Shukla:  TDC member and campground owner
Campground owner Napur Shukla

Ms. Shukla said, "The whole study."

Your reporter followed up, "You just said economic."

Ms. Pinto said, "It's called an economic impact study. The organizations that fund this, they will determine what is being studied: what data are we collecting and what data are we trying to measure."

Your reporter asked, "So even though it says economic, it doesn't mean it's totally economic?"

Councilwoman Moses said, "Economic can mean a lot of different things."

Ms. Pinto said, "Our natural resources are absolutely critical to our growth... We spend a lot of money marketing that. There would be some."

Mr. Patel:  "This is a very narrow vision of looking at Columbia County... Our scope is to get to the Florida Chamber of Commerce and further beyond that. This is what's going to affect Columbia County. And then see how we can mediate some dollars we're going to lose. Maybe get some dollars for the sports complex... to mitigate the loss of traffic. That's the goal."

He continued, "Our goal is not raw data as far as environmental concerns and all that. I'm sure the environment is going to be affected in some manner, but our scope of thinking here is a little bit narrow."

Ms. Vann closed out the conversation, "We are simply voting to help support their initiative. They will bring back what they are going to be doing the study on. We will discuss it at that time."

Your reporter asked, "So we don't know?"

Ms. Vann responded, "We don't know. We are simply saying we support the Chamber and their initiative. Whenever they have something to ask, they will bring it back. We don't have that information, yet."

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