Gadsden County looks for new economic development opportunities

While Quincy is known for its high per capita percentage of millionaires, it is the county seat of Gadsden County, one of the poorest counties in Florida, where more than one in three children live below the poverty level and the unemployment rate was 10.3 percent in June.David Gardner’s job is to recruit business to Gadsden, once a bustling farm community known for its shade tobacco farms. And although he gets calls from potential business suitors at least twice a month, many never pan out. Open for Business Rural Gadsden County faces a challenge familiar to many poor communities — trying to attract new economic development in an extremely competitive market By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Aug/Sep 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

In the early 20th century, a Quincy banker convinced many of his town’s wealthier farmers and merchants to buy stock in a new Atlanta soda company — Coca-Cola. At the time of its initial public offering in 1919, Coke stock was $40 a share. Eventually the price rose, the stock split and many Quincy residents became rich.

But while Quincy is known for its high per capita percentage of millionaires, it is the county seat of Gadsden County, one of the poorest counties in Florida, where more than one in three children live below the poverty level and the unemployment rate was 10.3 percent in June.

David Gardner’s job is to recruit business to Gadsden, once a bustling farm community known for its shade tobacco farms. And although he gets calls from potential business suitors at least twice a month, many never pan out.

The problems are varied.

Many residents want to retain the community’s agricultural atmosphere. There are few local incentives to encourage new businesses to move there. And more often than not, the infrastructure needed by a new business isn’t in place and would take months to build.

“These are very challenging times,” Gardner said. “Eighty percent of the opportunities are in green technology and renewable energy, and it’s very competitive.”


A Ray of Hope Is Extinguished

Gardner, the president of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce, was especially excited last year when work to bring a new biomass plant to the small city of Gretna, in western Gadsden County, started to gain momentum.

A company called Adage, a joint venture between companies Areva and Duke Energy, wanted to build a $250 million biomass plant near State Road 12. According to a news release, the company would bring 400 temporary jobs as early as mid-2010 and 24 full-time permanent jobs to the area. Adage’s plant was to burn wood scraps as a fuel to produce electricity — a process it called a “clean biopower energy solution.”

“We’ve got the county commission, all six municipalities and a lot of stakeholders pointed in the right direction,” Gardner said at a meeting on economic development efforts covered by the Tallahassee Democrat in February. “We’re excited.”

Yet some Gadsden County residents saw it differently. James Maloy, who lives just outside Gretna, was so incensed he built a website called “The Concerned Citizens of Gadsden County.” The site detailed his concerns about the plant’s effect on the environment and potential for air pollution. “Concerned Citizens” quickly drew supporters.

The group headed by Maloy aggressively lobbied city leaders and county commissioners. It received media attention from local television stations, the Tallahassee Democrat and even the student newspaper at Florida A&M University.

“There are good reasons to stop this plant from being built,” said Quincy resident Carl Owenby, quoted at a public meeting on the issue in the Democrat. “There are good scientific reasons that can affect our health and our children’s health.”

Three months later, the city of Gretna called for a six-month period to study the issue before final approval and Adage reacted by canceling its plans for a plant. The city issued a statement: “In light of Adage’s decision to suspend activity on its proposed bioenergy facility slated for construction in Gretna, the city now considers this matter closed and will take no further action.”

The concerned citizens had won.

Residents who were in favor of the biomass plant were beyond frustrated. The struggling county has never regained its footing after tobacco farming started to dry up in the 1980s, leaving 18,000 people looking for new employment.

“We’re still experiencing the repercussions of that,” said Byron Spires, editor of the Havana Herald. “We’ve never put that many people back to work.”

The recent severe economic recession only worsened the county’s already slumping business community. Gadsden’s largest private employer, mushroom grower Quincy Farms, announced in late 2008 that it was shutting down, laying off nearly 500 people.

Because of its proximity to Tallahassee, the state government is Gadsden County’s largest employer.

Gardner said losing the biomass plant was a bitter pill to swallow.

“I got pretty down. I bottomed out for a couple of weeks,” he said, shaking his head. “I wasted a year and a half of my life.”


Wins and Lossescoke-mural

Recruiting new business to any county or city is tough work. A county could have dozens, if not hundreds, of other competitors vying for that same business.

It all comes down to the sales pitch, location and tax incentives package. It’s standard practice now for counties to offer tax breaks and help coordinate other incentives at the state and federal level to businesses willing to guarantee a certain number of jobs in an area.

Gardner’s pitch for Gadsden County focuses heavily on the county’s four intersections with Interstate 10, as well as its proximity to the coast, major airports and universities.

“More often than you win, you lose,” said Bill Stanton, the executive director of the Jackson County Development Council, which focuses exclusively on recruiting new business to that county. Jackson shares its eastern border with Gadsden County. “You just have to keep plugging away and don’t let failure get you down.”

Gadsden County has had its share of losses, but it also has scored a few wins. The city of Midway, which is near the county’s southern border and a short drive to Tallahassee, pursued an aggressive economic development plan that included annexing additional land and zoning some of it near the I-10 and U.S. Highway 90 interchange in a way that offered businesses a more streamlined, faster process for building in the area.

As a result, companies such as T-Formation, which employs 120 people, decided to relocate there, building a 45,000 square-foot production facility for its T-shirt printing business.

Still, local business leaders say they’d like to see Gadsden County be more aggressive, envying the success nearby Jackson County has had in recruiting new business.

Though Jackson County has a similar agricultural background and recruiting pitch, it has been able to land major projects, such as the Family Dollar distribution center and the Green Circle BioEnergy wood-pellet manufacturing facility.

Stanton sympathizes with Gadsden County’s challenges.

“We’ve had long spells where we didn’t get anything, and then spells where we got ourselves organized and competed effectively and regularly,” he said.

It is daunting to pitch businesses on what’s special about your community, he said.

“No matter how attractive your community might be in your mind, with the best schools and the best recreation, everybody says that,” Stanton said.


A Challenge

Gadsden County faces a number of significant challenges when it comes to recruiting businesses, according to Gardner and other business leaders.

The fight over the biomass plant focused on air pollution and environmental concerns, but County Administrator Johnny Williams had another word for it: NIMBY, short for “Not In My Backyard.”

“Most of the opposition came from people very near to it,” Williams said. Similar to the NIMBY folks are the residents concerned about losing the county’s rural heritage for a big-city atmosphere.

“People don’t want this place to grow,” Spires said. “They like it just the way it is. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s in contrast to growth.”

Hemant Patel, an owner of several hotels in Gadsden County, said it can be a challenge to get all the cities within Gadsden County — Chattahoochee, Midway, Quincy, Havana, Greensboro and Gretna — to collaborate on economic development projects.

“Everyone wants a piece of the pie,” Patel said. “We are all fighting as opposed to helping.” Patel and Spires criticized the lack of a strategic growth plan from the county and cited an ongoing struggle to get the strong backing of local elected officials.

(Williams says the county commission is committed to bringing new jobs to the area, and has shown its dedication by paying the chamber of commerce for its economic development duties.)

Gardner said that when it comes to tax incentives, Gadsden County lags behind its competitors. And even if a business commits to building a new plant or distribution center, the county may have to build the basic infrastructure to support it, such as a water and sewer line. This turns off some businesses because it can slow down the project.

Longtime residents look to the Quincy town square as a symbol of what Gadsden County used to be, and could be again. At one time, that square buzzed with activity, with shops and restaurants.

“Downtown was vibrant,” Gardner said. “On Saturdays, that was the center of the universe.”

Now the square is busiest during the day and has mainly government offices. Many retailers shut down or moved closer to I-10.

Spires said he’s hopeful Gadsden County can make up for lost time and views economic development as a way to diminish some of the county’s problems when it comes to poverty, education and health care.

“We can make it a more prosperous community by being more business-friendly and overcoming all of these other problems,” he said.

“We are on the threshold of making some great advances if we can pull together as a community,” Spires said. “When the economy turns up, we could be sitting in a very good position.”

Gardner agreed, saying that while he was down in the dumps about losing the biomass plant a few weeks ago, he’s smiling again. Why? That very morning, a promising new business recruit had knocked on his door. Gadsden County was back in the game.