Eastward ho

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Eastward ho
By Ron Cunningham

Gainesville Sun

“Infrastructure is destiny.”

— Robin Chase, founder of Zip Car

From the time they ran Interstate 75 down the western edge of Gainesville, Alachua County’s economic destiny was sealed.

Ever since then, growth, development and wealth (and traffic) has steadily migrated west, while the eastern half remained the “poor” side of the county.

But just as the sun also rises in the east, there is reason to believe that a new era of economic prosperity may dawn for the poor side of the county in the not too distant future.

Forces are being set in motion, locally and around the world, that could eventually have the effect of reversing the county’s westward flow of wealth, development and investment.

Call me a dreamer, but I can’t recall when I’ve been so optimistic about east Gainesville’s future.
Innovation ripples

Start with the University of Florida’s ambitious Innovation Square initiative and its likely ripple effect.

That much-touted, 24-hour “live, work, play” R&D incubator complex — already rising from the ashes of the old county hospital — will be concentrated just a few blocks east of UF, on Southwest Second Avenue.

After all, the whole point of the initiative is to lure entrepreneurs who want to create new spin-off companies that will capitalize on the inventions, treatments and cures issuing from UF’s extensive research and development machine.

Key to making that happen, Vice President for Business Affairs Ed Poppell explains, is “proximity to UF.”

The entrepreneurs want to be where the scientists and researchers are.

But don’t discount the innovation ripple effect.

Someone raised a crucial question during a community briefing on Innovation Square on Monday evening: Eventually, some of those spin-off companies are going to need more physical space for light manufacturing and production.

Where will they go?

Perhaps along the newly improved South Main Street and soon-to-be-improved Depot Avenue corridors, both still within close proximity to UF.

Or in the GRU property near the Kelly generating plant, which the city hopes to develop into an urban R&D park. Or along Hawthorne and Waldo roads, with handy access to the airport, U.S. 301, State Road 20 and rail.

All those eastern corridors offer cheaper land, arguably a more easily navigable regulatory environment, and considerably less congestion than can be found to the wealthy west.

With Plan East Gainesville in place, and thanks to years of city-county-state infrastructure improvements, those corridors are poised to benefit from the innovation ripple effect.
Railroad revival

And then there is Plum Creek, the Panama Canal and the railroad revival to consider.

Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in Alachua County. And virtually all of its 65,000 acres are located on the east side of the county.

Plum Creek is mostly a timber business, but it’s clear the company is thinking way beyond pine trees.

On Monday evening, at 6 p.m. at the Hilton University Hotel, Plum Creek will kick off “Envision Alachua,” which it describes as “a community visioning process to discuss future economic, environmental and community opportunities in Alachua County on lands owned by Plum Creek.

Among the company’s holdings: About 8 miles of land fronting the railroad that runs north and south along U.S. 301.

Why is that significant?

First, said Todd Powell, Plum Creek’s director of real estate, as fuel prices increase in the coming years, railroads are going to continue to gain a competitive advantage over the trucking industry.

“You can move a lot more freight by rail with a gallon of diesel than by truck,” he said.

And then there’s the expansion of the Panama Canal to consider.

When improvements there are completed, a lot of big container ships from Japan, Korea and China that now unload their goods in California for cross-country shipment will instead transit the canal and head directly to the east coast.

Florida ports that stand to benefit from this diversion include Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville. All of them connected by rail.

Plum Creek already is working with Enterprise Florida and Columbia County to develop a 500-acre “inland port” facility near Lake City to capitalize on the economic opportunities presented to Florida by a big ship-accommodating Panama Canal.

“For an inland port, the ability to move freight efficiently between trains and trucks is vital,” the company said in a recent release. “Proximity to the I-10/I-75 corridor combined with access to rail service positions Lake City to be a gateway for freight transit to points in all directions.”

So how might Plum Creek’s Alachua County holdings figure into that picture?

How about a new “railroad town,” one located in strategic proximity not only to Lake City’s inland port, but also to the creative thinkers living and working in and around UF’s Innovation Square?

“We’ve been sort of exploring options over the last five years,” Powell said. “Rail is very important to that process.”

As for Envision Alachua, Powell said, Plum Creek wants the community’s help to answer a crucial question: “How do we design a future in a world that is very different than it is now?”

As it happens, that’s pretty much the same question UF is trying to answer with Innovation Square.

The emerging knowledge-based economy “is the industrial revolution of our time,” said David Green, an urban planner consulting on Innovation Square. “It’s the thing that’s going to drive the redevelopment of cities.”

And Innovation Square “is about positioning the future of Gainesville in the world,” he said.

So let’s connect the dots.

If Gainesville figures to be a key player in the innovation revolution — and if energy prices and the Panama Canal conspire to make the railroads Florida’s new interstate freight highway system — then we just might begin to see wealth, capital and population in Alachua County begin to migrate east again.

Where the action will be.

Where the sun also rises on a new dawn of east Gainesville prosperity.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun.com or 374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.