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Econ Dev Summit: DOT Millions, Quality Jobs, Gainesville, Wkforce Development, Supt of Schools

Part III: Does anybody get it?

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Moving right along from "Part II: No one looked happy," the demeanor of the attendees had not changed.

Free Money: Meet the Florida Department of Transportation

DOT's Jordan Green talks about the DOT - Columbia County relationship as Commissioner Bucky Nash looks on. City Councilman Jefferson is in the middle.

Gordon Green of Florida DOT said, "The transportation network we have in Columbia County is unparalleled in North Central Florida. We've got two interstates; we've got rail running north, south, east, west. We've got an airport. We've got the Intermodal Park. All the pieces are in place transportation wise. DOT is on board with you. Granted, as a district we have to spread that among 18 counties, but our district headquarters is here in Lake City in Columbia County. That is a strength that we have that most counties do not have... Over the last ten years the Department of Transportation has spent over $130 million in Columbia County in construction alone, with an additional 35 million planned to open in the next five years. We're on board with you."

Mr. Murphy followed up, "We're at a real advantage having the District sitting right here amongst our backyard."

Affordability & Close to Quality Jobs

Panel member and Re/Max real-estate broker Missy Zecher said that an advantage of Columbia County is affordability in the home market. "We are in a prime spot... We're close to Jacksonville -- Gainesville for commuting purposes for jobs that are paying."

Commissioner Williams said, "People work outside Columbia County. Some people drive as far as Tallahassee, 100 miles away to go to work. Some people drive that far to come to Columbia County to work. What you have to make business understand is we don't mind driving a hundred miles to go to work. We have good old country folks in all these counties around here that don't mind driving a hundred miles to go to work."

Gainesville (Alachua County): "Not our competition"

Transportation Disadvantaged Board members Ralph Kitchens and fellow board member Sandra Buck-Camp (right) listen along with members of the Chamber.

Commissioner Williams opined: "We're at a disadvantage with Georgia being one-way and Marion County being the other way, which is our biggest competitors -- Gainesville is not. It's more a university-type setting there."

Within the last decade, Columbia County, which is notorious for being the premier good ole' boy county in Florida, with its touted best location in north central Florida, lost major distribution centers a few miles down I-75 to the City of Alachua: Dollar General, Walmart, Sysco.

The City of Gainesville is a few miles down the road from Alachua, and the second exit off I-75. Gainesville has a regional passenger airport, international businesses, and city and county commissions who have built municipal centers in their downtowns, while the homeless Columbia County 5 (County Commission), who recently borrowed $8 million to build a municipal complex and could have built it in downtown Lake City to spur downtown economic development and revitalization, decided to invest the $8million in a new jail instead.

More about Alachua County and Gainesville economic development can be found here.

Commissioner Williams further opined, "Dead presidents make people come here." His reference was to economic development incentives.

Weyerhaeuser's Greg Galpin and City Councilwoman Melinda Moses listen to the conversation. Weyerhaeuser is located in Gainesville.

Workforce Development

Mr. McKee said he did a little survey and workforce came up. The survey was not made available.

DOT's Jordan Green said workforce is an issue in the construction industry and can't be ignored. He added, "Economic development is a very complex problem."

The Superintendent Speaks

Columbia County elects its school superintendents, disabling the district to search America for the best superintendent it can afford.

Superintendent Lex Carswell opined, "I consider people part of the infrastructure... We have to have positive leadership. People have to want to be around positive people."

For years business leaders, Chamber leaders, and CareerSource Florida Crown have been complaining that students do not have even the rudimentary skills when they leave the high school to prepare for a job interview or go to work. See (2016): Columbia County Workforce Development Summit On Tap for September. It never happened.

Mr. Carswell announced, "We need to have people ready to work when they are 16, part time, so this next year we're startin' a class called workplace essential skills... We want to make sure that we're puttin' out a product that can meet the workforce needs."

Mr. Carswell said the school district needs to think ahead and not in the past. This is the refrain of failed executives who never learn from the past. In the private sector they get tossed. In the public sector, they get reelected.

Mr. Carswell said, "We need to do what's right for the people of Columbia County. I think the schools and the college are ready to jump on board and do it the right way. It's not easy because apathy reigns: in our schools, in our attendance, in our workforce. There's a reason why we can't get connected to people wanting to go to work every day."

Mr. Carswell complained about the large volume of turnover among school district teachers without mentioning the reasons why.

Dr. Larry Barrett:
"Important, when we talk workforce, we talk reality"

The hyper energetic Dr. Larry Barrett.

Dr. Larry Barrett is the Florida Gateway College President. The College Board, bypassing the County's good ole' boy candidate, reached out to Maine to snag Dr. Barrett.

Dr. Barrett did not pull his punch when he told the summiteers, "As we talk about new business, we are not going to be able to scale for large businesses in this county. For the class (high school) of 2018, I'd guess there are about 600 graduates. According to statistics, within five years the pool of educated people to be employed for good paying mid level jobs will be about 180 people... So when you look for workforce development it's not just going to be able to come from our high school. If you are looking at a company of 400 people, it's not just going to come from our high school students. It's got to come from our community, retraining... We've got to bring in people... It's very important that when we talk workforce, we talk reality."

Mr. Murphy remarked about the high school, "I think we're gettin' as much as we can get out of it right now."

A Sleeping Giant?

City Council candidate Vanessa George takes notes as Com. Williams speaks and community activist Sylvester Warren looks on.

Commissioner Williams proclaimed Lake City Airport "the biggest sleeping giant we have in Columbia County."

He opined that when the City hires its new city manager the candidate be an expert in "airport and utilities, not downtown redevelopment or anything."

Commissioner Williams said that water is his "peeve pet." "You can forget about utilities, water, sewer, buildin's and whatever. If you don't have the water divide [?] the quality of life for Columbia County, we are in trouble.... We cannot let the JEA suck us dry."

The meeting went on for another half hour.

Throughout the Summit, not one summiteer mentioned culture, the need for a thriving downtown, or the need for a quality school district.

If there was any consensus, it was that there is no defined City/County direction; there is no consensus on what kind of business the County fathers want to come to Columbia County; the County and City need to develop an economic development incentive fund; workforce development in Columbia County is from worse and beyond; Columbia County's springs, rivers, rural life, low housing costs and taxes are a positive; the County needs utilities for economic development and the City has them; and finally, "Why can['t] we all just get along."

County Commission Chairman Tim Murphy and Mayor Steve Witt.


As the meeting closed out, Columbia County School Superintendent Lex Carswell, the person responsible for the education of approximately 10,000 students said, "I don't want anybody to answer this, cause I'm just asking it out here, but I've heard this over and over and I'm an educator, but what did Ocala do to get ahead of us? What did Marion County do to get ahead of us?"

It is well known throughout the land that a community's "School district is the anchor to the community." High quality schools attract good businesses, educated and high skilled families and good jobs with a future.

Superintendent Carswell's honesty is to be appreciated, while his lack of knowledge is astonishing.

When the County/City fathers, Superintendent Carswell and the school board can answer his question, only then will Columbia County move forward into the light.

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