Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County Economic Development Blowin' in the wind - 20 years too late

Nobody has paid attention to what is the centerpiece of Columbia County's economic development plan, which is still under development. Up until a few weeks ago, the signs while saggy, were at least visible. Now the photos reflect the real course of economic development in Columbia County.

Columbia County's recent decision to abolish the IDA (Industrial Development Authority) and combine it with a County Economic Development Board, controlled by the County Commission, has shown once again that when it comes to economic development, Columbia County is 20 years too late. Columbia County's Inland Port, proclaimed by all community leaders to be the salvation of the County, is a hoax and a joke. One look at the signs, which announce to the world that the port is coming, tells the true story - no one is paying attention. For weeks, the world has seen one sign dragging on the ground and the other all twisted up and "blowin' in the wind" -- both are unreadable.

The Inland Port

Wherever they go, Columbia County's community leaders are all touting the Inland Port. Job creation numbers are being thrown around with no basis in reality. These numbers have ranged from a low of 300 to a high of 20,000 jobs created.

State Senator Charlie Dean attended the Fandango.

After four years of talk, the site plan is still nothing more than an ariel map.

Economic Development Director, Jim Poole, has been the point man for all economic development activities in the County for the past twenty years. He has been the face of economic development for both Columbia County and North Central Florida.

The Inland Port site has not had its infrastructure needs addressed. There is no master plan; no utility plan; no road plan; no plan for attracting businesses.

Nobody knows the maximum potential for development. The needs of sewer, water, and electricity have barely been discussed and everyone is clueless regarding maximum capacity at maximum development.

August 6, 2010 - The gym at the college. Jim Poole addresses the audience

August 6, 2010 – The Great Inland Port Fandango

On August 6, 2010, every politician, mover and shaker, and wanabee, showed up at Lake City Community College to sing their praises of the 550 acres of dirt known as the Inland Port. Columbia County, Lake City, State Representatives and Senators, Workforce Florida, the trucking industry, the School District, Plum Creek -- the land owner, the Water Management District, and just about everybody else showed up. 

Everyone proclaimed that the widening of the Panama Canal was going to be the panacea  to change the future of Columbia County and Lake City forever.

Jax Port and the St. Johns River were mystically going to be dredged and straightened to accommodate the new super freighters that were to be coming through the widened Panama Canal.

Everyone was so excited. One would have thought the super freighters would be pulling directly into Columbia County's Inland Port.

August 6, 2010 - Plumb Creek - the landowner

The Observer spoke with Todd Powell, the landowner of Columbia County's Inland Port.

Todd Powell

The Observer:     How much money do you folks have invested in this project?
Mr. Powell:     We have a significant dollar investment at this point. You know -- we've been working on it for four years.
The Observer:     Lake City is going to be the utility provider?
Mr. Powell:     We are still trying to determine that. There might be some different options and opportunities. There are different avenues that we can explore... There is a checklist of infrastructure items that have to be seen to.
The Observer:     Do you consider Cecil Field competition for the site?
Mr. Powell:     Obviously, we're looking at doing something similar to that. I think the advantage of this - what it comes down to - when you look at the proximity to I-10 and I-75. You're that much further away from Jax Port. You are that much further away from congestion. Cecil Field has some transportation issues.
The Observer:     Can you tell me a little bit about Jax Port?
Mr. Powell:     There has been a lot of capital commitment; there is a deepening project that is in process; Jax Port is going to go through a lot of changes. I don't necessarily view it as competition.  I view it as complementary.
The Observer:     Thank you.

August 6, 2010 - County Manager Dale Williams

County Manager Dale Williams listens at the Fandango.

The Observer:     Dale, did anybody let the city know what may be required of them regarding utilities?
County Manager Williams:     They have already been given some of the technical specs. I think that they are in the process of costing it out to see what it would take.
The Observer:     Who finally decides who does the utilities?
County Manager Williams:     The property is in the County. The property belongs to Plum Creek... It's their money. Columbia County has not put any money into this other than staff time. The state of Florida has invested money because of the RACEC and catalyst site designation. When you look at the map you have to ask yourself, who is in the best position to serve? Obviously, Lake City is.
The Observer:     Who makes the final decision - Plum Creek?
County Manager Williams:     I don't think so. What will happen, this will be developed in phases and then we will make decisions based on the individual phases as we move along.
The Observer:     Has anybody spoken to the City?
County Manager Williams:     Jim [Jim Poole] came and talked to me and I said listen, the City is clearly in the best position. It is very close to their water plant, it makes sense.

August 6, 2010 -- Lake City Manager, Wendell Johnson

City Manager Wendell Johnson.

The Observer:     Mr. Johnson, is the City equipped to handle the utility needs at the Inland Port?
City Manager Johnson:     Water and sewer capacity is not going to be an issue. However, running the lines is going to be an issue out there. A sewer line is going to be in the million plus dollar range.
The Observer:     Has anyone addressed the infrastructure needs with the City?
City Manager Johnson:     If anyone has addressed the infrastructure needs of this development project, they are keeping it a big secret.

March 2, 2011 - seven months later
Columbia County Economic Development/IDA meeting

Rusty De Pratter, Chairman of the Economic Dev Bd.

Columbia County's economic development team is basically unchanged, other than adding two County Commissioners, Rusty DePratter and Stephen Bailey.

The County has recently taken away the independence of the IDA and it has become a county department, now run by the County Commission, chaired by the infamous Jody DuPree.

Commissioner DePratter has a business installing fences and Commissioner Bailey is presently an assistant manager in Lake City's T.J. Maxx.

To understand some of what went on during this economic development meeting, it is best to see it in the participants own words.

Jim Poole:     (Discusses the Inland Port/Catalyst Site)
On the catalyst site, I even asked the City for figures of what it would take to upgrade the system to serve the catalyst site and all I got was a ballpark figure. I never got a formal response to that. That is something that we definitely want to go back and request as part of the committee, as we detail the true costs for infrastructure.

(Discussion - City/County relations)

Jeff Simmons, works for FPL.

Jeff Simmons (Bd. Member):       We should invite the City to the meetings.
IDA Chairperson Suzanne Norris:      The public doesn't understand why there is no collaboration between the City and the County. The general public is not going to accept this.
Mr. Simmons:      So what do we do?
IDA Chairperson Norris:     We should just ask them to come to a meeting and participate.

Suzanne Norris makes a point.

County Commissioner DePratter (Economic Development Board Chairman):      We all have to work together.
Mr. Simmons:      Dale (County Manager Dale Williams) Can we just send them a letter?
County Manager Williams:      Sure.
Mr. Simmons:      I moved that we ask Dale to send them (the City) a letter inviting them to have a representative on this committee.
Mr. DePratter:      On the committee or attending the meeting?
All:      Attend for now.
Mr. DePratter:      We'll see how it goes.
The Clerk:      Is this a motion to attend or be part of the committee?
Mr. DePratter:      To attend.


More concerned with being seen and resume building, Columbia County's economic development team has been an ongoing disaster. In the last 20 years their record of accomplishment has been slim to nonexistent and can rightfully be measured in losses, not gains.

Target Industries, a multimillion dollar project, was not sought out by Columbia County. Because of the location, Target Industries sought out Columbia County. Columbia County gave up the farm to get them. How much the project really cost the County no one will ever know. Poor, amateur, and lax accounting practices and the County's inability and failure to perform in-house internal auditing has been greasing the skids for the County's good old boys at the expense of accountability for decades.

Depending on Jax Port to make Columbia County's Inland Port a success is nothing but a pipe dream. The dredging of the St. Johns River, because of both economic conditions and ecological concerns will most likely never happen.

Gov. Scott has rightly committed both money and resources to the Port of Miami.

From Miami to Savanna professional and experienced economic development teams have been operating for decades. The Port of Miami and the Port Authority of Georgia, along with Cecil Field and Jax Port to the east has sealed the fate of Columbia County's Inland Port, making it just another Ellisville Boondoggle to come.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On March 10, 2011, Geezer of Lake City wrote:

"Gateway Airport". Hmmm... Sounds like a good time to offer air service in conjunction with the "Inland Port". After 40 years of watching the trees grow and the sons replace their fathers as "good ol' boys', I'm ready to speak out. Wake up, people, for the kids' sake.        Tom (alias Geezer)


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More on Columbia County Economic Development:

Plum Creek on the move in Columbia County $190 million,  75 long term jobs on the docket (November 18, 2011)

Columbia County Economic Development: Will Lake City continue as the "red-headed step child?" (August 4, 2011)

Workforce Florida, streamlining by adding another layer of bureaucracy: Cost $750,000 (July 27, 2011)

FL Economic Development Czar Speaks - Musical chairs on the deck of the Titanic? (July 24, 2011)

Columbia County: Garbage Capital of North Central Florida? (June 7, 2011)

Tallahassee: Economic Development Legislative Session Wrap-up (May 31, 2011)

Florida's Economic Development Czar Came to Columbia County - Really (May 31, 2011)

Columbia County Economic Development Blowin' in the wind - 20 years too late (March 2, 2011)

Economic Development in their own words (Jan 24, 2011)

FL Enterprise Zones under the gun (Jan 23, 2011)

County & IDA Drop the Ball - Again (Jan 05, 2011)

Columbia County's inland port decades late (Jan 03, 2010)

Columbia County ranks 5th in the nation in the unemployed (Dec 18, 2010)

IDA Continues sub par under County management (Nov 29, 2010)

County Economic Development
Making it up as they go along
(Oct 06, 2010)

Lake City Planning for Future Downtown - County Commission MIA (June 25, 2010)

The Great Columbia County Dog and Pony Show (June 02, 2010)

IDA Rudderless • Web presence a mess (Feb 02, 2010)