By Anthony Clark | The Gainesville Sun
On one hand, the Plum Creek Timber Company has made it clear it is not in a hurry to develop portions of the 65,000 acres the company owns in Alachua County.
After all, being in the business of growing pine trees, it is nothing to wait 12 to 30 years for a return on investment.
Todd Powell, senior director of real estate for Plum Creek, has continuously referred to the master plan that the company is preparing as a long-term plan with a 50-year outlook.
Even the Envision Alachua process, which is being held to help prepare that long-term plan, has gone on for nearly two years with hundreds of people expressing their wishes for the land during task force meetings and community workshops.
However, Powell and others with a stake in the plans say they feel the pressure of those expectations and already are working together to try to lure industrial tenants to portions of the land along Hawthorne Road between Gainesville and Hawthorne.
They are targeting their efforts where they see the most opportunity to draw on the strengths of location and available local resources. Promising prospects include major agribusiness companies that could partner with researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and manufacturing companies that could benefit from the CSX rail line and U.S. 301 — the main truck route between Jacksonville and Tampa — on the land closest to Hawthorne.
Powell said the hope is to get a commitment from a tenant to tie into the land-use approval process that the company plans to bring to the county and state later this year.
“There's a lot of anticipation that's been built. There's a lot of people very interested,” said Tim Giuliani, president of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, who is helping with the economic development aspect of the plans.
For example, he said people in east Gainesville are eager to see job growth.
“Those people don't want to wait another day for job opportunities, so I feel the pressure every day that I'm sure now Plum Creek and everyone on that task force feels to deliver on a nice vision, a nice plan, but now everyone's ready for the rubber to hit the road.”
Seattle-based Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in Alachua County and one of the largest in the U.S. with 6.4 million acres. It is a real estate investment trust that makes the vast majority of its money selling timber but is interested in developing land where that would be a more valuable use than timber production.
The company started thinking about a long-term master plan for its land in Alachua County around 2005 when it was approached by the county. Powell said the county was interested in putting more land in conservation.
Of Plum Creek's roughly 65,000 acres here, 24,000 acres are already in conservation, with Plum Creek keeping timber rights while preventing the possibility of future development.
Through Envision Alachua, Plum Creek has engaged a broad cross-section of the community representing environmental interests, education, business, government and residents in nearby communities to talk about where it makes sense to add conservation land, where it makes sense to develop and what that development should look like.
Powell said Plum Creek has about six months of work to do before it is ready to submit plans.
When it does, Plum Creek will submit a sector plan, a method available for holdings of at least 15,000 acres. It would be just the fifth sector plan in Florida.
A sector plan includes a long-term master plan that shows where conservation, agricultural, urban and rural lands would be and the allowable uses within each, and detailed specific area plans for subsectors that would show the density and intensity of those uses, such as the number of buildings and the maximum square footage.
Unlike with other sector plans, Powell said Plum Creek plans to submit detailed plans at the same time it submits the master plan so people will have a better understanding of what the developments could look like.
Tim Jackson, a planning consultant working with Plum Creek on the project, said Plum Creek is looking at conserving about 60,000 of the roughly 65,000 acres it holds here.
Through the Envision Alachua process, Plum Creek identified five areas for potential development within the 17,000-acre Windsor tract in the eastern part of the county but will start with two areas along Hawthorne Road for the first detailed plans.
One is in the southwest corner of the tract to try to take advantage of its proximity to Gainesville and UF, while the other is closest to Hawthorne, the CSX rail line and U.S. 301.
For the southwest area, Powell said Plum Creek is looking at agribusiness as a possibility to take advantage of the research talent at IFAS. He said he learned through working with the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce on economic development that, while the biotech industry has competition in Central and South Florida, “Gainesville has this unbelievable ag talent that is nowhere else in the state.”
In a presentation to The Sun, Powell showed a concept drawing of a business research park with facilities next to fields.
IFAS' top administrator, Jack Payne, said he envisions partnerships between the institute's scientists and companies, such as Monsanto or Pioneer DuPont.
Payne said IFAS researchers already have created 98 percent of the blueberries grown in Florida and 60 percent of the strawberries — crops with a combined $409 million in revenue in Florida in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Powell said Plum Creek also envisions a major manufacturer moving to the Hawthorne area.
“If it's an ag manufacturer, you load it up on a train and ship it out to the port of Jacksonville,” he said.
Plum Creek has enlisted a heavy hitter to help with industrial recruitment. In January, the company announced a joint partnership with The Rockefeller Group, which has developed 5 million square feet of industrial space since 2008, including distribution centers near seaports.
The partnership specifically covers 2,600 acres approved for an industrial park in the Lake City area, plus an area near Dublin, Ga., but could help with the Alachua County developments as well.
“We think they can be a game-changer for that project up there, and I know they are also interested to see what's going on here in terms of potentially bringing some end users into this,” Powell said.
Residential areas might be part of future plans.
“The houses can come later. It's really about getting something ready from an economic development perspective,” Powell said.
When it is ready to submit plans, Plum Creek likely will have a sizable number of supporters unusual for local development projects as a result of bringing so many people into the process. That has included a number of east Gainesville residents interested in the economic development potential of the project, such as Vivian Filer, chairwoman of the proposed Cotton Club Museum & Cultural Center.
Filer said she has participated in a number of boards and meetings over the years where the people making plans did not seek input from the people who would be most affected, but that is not the case with Plum Creek.
“The people that have come to the table who felt that they had no voice, they have come during the sessions and had their voice … heard there, and they have taken hold of it, they have owned it, and they feel good about it because you have let them sit at the table,” she said.