Friday, October 14, 2005

Will St. Johns attract next big business boom?

OPEN LETTER TO COMMISSIONERS
RAINER, HERRIN AND BERRY
REGARDING PLANNING.

I have taken the liberty (with permission)
of reproducing the following article by
Alison Trinidad of the Times Union. It
offers some insights that I wanted to
share with you. At a recent meeting of
the "Blueprint for Prosperity" a
Jacksonville Taskforce it was disclosed
that "Rulon" (a Georgia-based company)
searched all the JDA's in South Georgia
for a home for this project and was
turned away cold. Where was our JDA
when this opportunity arose?

Planners are counting on projects
like World Commerce Center to
start the stampede

This month, developers and economic officials in
St. Johns County await the closing of a coporate
coup that could herald a new era in business
development for the county.

Ring Power Corp., a longtime Jacksonville-based
dealer of heavy industrial equipment, is moving its
corporate headquarters and taking more than 500
jobs to World Commerce Center, a 973 acre
business center off Interstate 95 in the northern
part of the county.

Although business growth in St. Johns County has
trailed in the wake of a housing boom, planners
are counting on projects like World
Commerce to slow that trend. Real Estate
professionals predict that business will cluster
along the interstate, which runs through the heart
of the county. Already, the construction of
about 2.2 million square feet of new business
has been approved in developments
throughout the county - mostly near major
roads like I-95. Employers like ConAgra Foods
Inc., Tree of Life, American Culinary Federation,
Whetstone Chocolate and Dominex, which pay
higher wages than retailers, have established
presences in the county. And county economic
incentive policies are in place to persuade new
business, such as Ring Power, to relocate there.

S. Johns officials say their strategy isn't to divert
business from Duval County, but to supplement it.
And, as growth spills from the south side of
Jacksonville, they say it's likely that more
businesses will take root south of the Duval County
line. At least, they hope it is.

A HEALTHY BALANCE

"If you have a county full of rooftops, that's
not a healthy fiscal place for a community
to be," said Kari Keating, who heads the economic
development arm of the St. Augustine & St. Johns
County Chamber of Commerce. "We need to keep
singing the song very loudly that a mix of uses that
includes commercial and industrial (use) is healthy
for a balance in your local tax base."

About three-quarters of the taxable real
estate in the county is residential property,
according to the chamber. Although St. Johns
is a member of Cornerstone, a six-county
partnership that markets the region to potential
businesses, it needs to create high-wage
jobs within its borders or risk becoming
a bedroom community to Jacksonville,
Keating said.

St. Johns County residents earn one of the
highest per capita incomes in the state,
but employers there pay a lower average wage
than employers pay in Duval County. Because
of that, between 35 and 40 percent of the county's
labor force commutes outside the county to work,
Keating said.

More jobs would diversify the county's tax
base, cut down on commute time for its residents
and increase its annual average salary. "That
highlights why we put so much energy into
recruiting those high wage opportuinties
at home," Keating said. "When we look at
all the rooftops that are being approved,
it becomes more daunting. It's just been
easier lately to sell homes because that's
been the hot commodity. In the long run,
our local government leaders need to
really have a keen understanding (that)
we can't put the entire burden on the
homeowners in the future. It's got be
balanced.

Business Synergy

Frank "Duke" Steineman Jr., the developer
behind World Commerce Center, agrees.

"Most of the development in St. Johns
County to date has been targeted toward
residential development," he said. "It
felt a lot like a bedroom community. I
think it is important to have some
business synergy developed in that area.

Steinemann's largest new development, with
rights to put in about 2.2 million square
feet of office space; 1 million square feet
of retail; 450,000 square feet of light
industrial; 1,150 residences; and 1,000
hotel rooms. Visible from the interstate,
the center is just south of World Golf
Village, a similiar mixed-use project that has
rights to develop up to 5.6 million square feet of
commercial space.

In March, the developer broke ground for the
center's second tenant, Georgia-based Rulon
Co., which manufactures acoustical wood
and PVC ceilings and wall systems for
commercial buildings like hospitals and
musuems.

"We want to be the employment center for
St. Johns County. That's our objective. And at
this point of time, we have the biggest new
employer in the county on our site. Having
Rulon come along was certainly a very
positive validation for World Commerce
Center," Steinemann said.

Managing the growth

In April, the U.S. Census Bureau named
St. Johns County the ninth-fastest growing
county in the country. From 2003 to 2004,
the county's population jumped 6.7 percent. With
more than 60,000 homes approved for construction
over the next 25 years, it is unlikely that population
growth will slow.

To help manage that growth, the county
adopted an impact fee schedule this year
that more than doubles the government
fees for new construction. The fees help pay
for government services needed to support new
developments, such as roads, drainage,
schools, public safety and fire protection.

The new fees take effect today, increasing the fee
to build a new single-family home from $2,360 to
$6,685 for a home up to 1,800 square feet or
$9,299 for a bigger home. Commercial buildings
smaller than 100,000 square feet went from $2,127
per 1,000 square feet to $6,562 per 1,000 square
feet.

If you build it ..........

Other businesses will follow World Commerce Center
and Ring Power, said Chuck White, CEO of real
estate firm Commercial Jacksonville/Cushman &
Wakefield.

The residences are going south, and when the
residences go south, the retail and a certain amount
of offices will go there, " White said.

Business leaders are looking to locate closer
to areas they and their employees want to
live, White said. Easy interstate access, close
proximity,low taxes and tourist destinations
like St. Augustine and the beaches make St. Johns
County attractive. More surveys show that these
businessess employees are living south of Butler
Boulevard, he said.

Sandy Sez: I am unlike some other
Commissioners, not in the habit of making
statements without facts. Unfortunately,
my fellow Commissioners think of
developers first and ordinary folks a
distant last.

P.S. See for yourself what really happened

at the October 4th meeting! TUNE INTO

TV CAMDEN Channel 62 St. Marys and 52

in Kingsland. Tuesday October 18th

8:30 pm. Tell me what you think?

Sandy Feller

County Commissioner

District 4

oilseal@tds.net

"Working for the future without forgetting the past"