Owners Create Commercial Park in Hopes of Developing Major Job Center
A long-closed battery plant in Alachua is coming back to life while playing a role in global economics—and national security.
Bren-Tronics Energy Systems LLC is leasing 100,000 square feet in the Phoenix Commercial Park on U.S. 441—part of a battery plant that was a major area employer from the early 1960s to the late 1990s under various owners, beginning with General Electric.
For now, Bren-Tronics employs only 12 people, including two from China, under a U.S. Defense Department contract aimed at demonstrating the plant’s capabilities.
The company says it could hire more employees for its Phoenix Park facility if it succeeds in becoming a major producer of battery cells. The cells built here would go into battery packs that Bren-Tronics’ parent company, based on Long Island, N.Y., makes to power electronics devices—from GPS’s to radar—for the military.
Along with Bren-Tronics, Phoenix Park has become the home of Encell Technology, an alkaline battery firm, as well as a tree service, a cabinet company and a volleyball gym.
Two other companies rent space for warehousing. In addition, Gainesville and Alachua County law enforcement and fire departments conduct training exercises in and around the buildings free of charge.
The Hipp family, a major commercial property owner in the Alachua area, bought the site in early 2007 because of its potential for business growth, says Charles “Chip” Howe, the park manager.
Virginia Johns and Lisa Albertson, daughters of John C. Hipp, operate the park. “They really want to see jobs return to the community,” Howe says.
Exactly how many jobs existed at the site’s peak employment period isn’t clear, with some people remembering 1,500 and some saying 2,000.
Phoenix Commercial Park, which owns 65 acres of the 150-acre former battery plant site, has the potential to become an employment center once again—with a possible doubling of its current 300,000 square feet of space, Howe says.
While the park is adding tenants, it is considering asking the City of Alachua to annex the 65 acres, partly because annexation will lower the cost of using the city’s sewer system. During earlier annexation discussions, city commissioners have asked whether the 65 acres posed a contamination threat, knowing that an adjacent land that was part of the original battery plant site is undergoing contamination remediation.
The Phoenix Park is contamination-free, Howe says. “We don’t have any contamination, and we never did.”
Howe is working with city officials to allay their fears, citing a 2006 environmental study that gave Phoenix a clean bill of health.
Annexation Would Help Park
The former battery plant site has its own sewer system. Although the system is operating well, expanding it to serve additional buildings would be hard to permit, Howe says.
Companies considering the Phoenix site take sewer capacity into consideration. “Without fail, they have something about which municipality provides sewer service on their list of questions,” Howe says.
Annexation would make it easier to construct more buildings, Howe says. That’s because the county requires 30 percent green space on the site, which is classified as a rural development center, while the city requires only 10 percent.
At the request of Phoenix, the county commission designated the site as a brownfield rehabilitation district, meaning that companies relocating there can be eligible for certain state and county incentives. The incentives include job creation bonuses and forgiveness of some property taxes, based partly on the number of jobs created.
While a brownfield designation may carry with it a certain amount of stigma, the tag is intended to boost redevelopment of neglected property, says Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird.
“The Phoenix property is a good example of misunderstanding about brownfields,” he says. “The property had a perceived contamination issue merely due to being located next to a confirmed contamination site.”
Bird is promoting job creation at brownfields nationwide as the new chair of the board of the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals.
“It’s great that we’re able to reuse the Phoenix site,” he says. “It makes sense to reuse a brownfield instead of having the impact of new construction,” Bird says.
Alachua County Government supports redevelopment of the Phoenix Park, regardless of whether the City of Alachua annexes the site, says Assistant County Manager Rick Drummond. “For companies looking to relocate, having a site that is ready to go is as important as being able to offer them an infusion of cash,” he says.
Bren-Tronics Touts Defense Benefits
The majority of lithium ion battery cells for handheld devices used by the U.S. military are built overseas, primarily in the Far East, and relying on foreign suppliers threatens national security, says Kyle Roelofs, director of contracts for Bren-Tronics Inc., the parent company of Bren-Tronics Energy Systems.
“The military is the biggest user of rechargeable batteries in the country, and it’s a big problem when they aren’t available,” he says. “The supply can be reduced by natural disasters such as the Japanese tsunami or a fire in a plant.”
The company is lobbying federal officials and Congress for favorable treatment that will make it economical to produce battery cells on a large scale at the Phoenix plant, which still has some equipment from the battery plant days.
“It’s important for battery cells for the American military to be built by Americans,” Roelofs says.
Ben-Tronics has just completed two years of renovating its space and refurbishing the battery-producing equipment there, notes plant manager Joe Barrella. “We’ve purchased new equipment, and we’re starting up production of various products. We’re hiring engineers, scientists and equipment operators.”
Park Serving Multiple Purposes
Phoenix Commercial Park has attracted a wide array of businesses, demonstrating the flexibility of the space—which features everything from high power capabilities needed for manufacturing to high ceilings that come in handy for the gym the Gainesville Juniors Volleyball Club has developed.
Nick Rimert of The Axiom Kitchen Company was frustrated when he was planning to relocate his business from Lake City in order to be closer to his customer base, which is in Alachua County.
“I looked high and low, and I wasn’t finding anything I could use,” he says. “There’s very little manufacturing zoning in the county, and most of the properties with the right zoning are high priced.”
His 4,800 square feet of space at the Phoenix Park serves his needs well, including providing high voltage circuits that he needs for his equipment. The affordable rent allows him to keep his prices low, he says.
The park’s published rates for warehouse space vary from $5 to $8 per square foot, depending on the amount of space leased, the length of the lease, whether the space is air conditioned or not and the amount of tenant-specified build-out the park does, Howe says.
Encell at Cutting Edge
Phoenix tenant Encell Technology is developing alkaline batteries for use as back up power supplies for cell phone towers and to store energy created by wind and solar generation, says Chief Technology Officer Randy Ogg. The batteries are relatively inexpensive and have a long service life.
Encell, which now has 15 employees at the park, is moving into production after the first of the year, with the goal of scaling up over time in the 20,000 square feet of space it’s leasing, Ogg says.
“The Phoenix Park has been a very important part of our ability to grow quickly and cost-effectively,” Ogg says. “The park staff also has helped us connect with local businesses and get help from state and local government.”
The workers at the site also are refining the company’s Sentinel monitoring system for cell phone batteries.
The Sentinel system checks battery levels at cell towers and communicates information to a central location, says Alan Seidel, Encell’s vice president of engineering. The equipment also cycles recharging equipment on and off in a pattern that prolongs battery life, he says.
Seidel worked at the battery plant in its heyday, and he’s glad to see it coming back. “We know this place, and several of our workers, including a PhD chemist, worked at the battery plant.”
Encell is headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., and had considered moving the Alachua staff there, but canceled the move due to the advantages the Phoenix site offers, Seidel says. “The weather is great, we have access to researchers at the University of Florida and the Gainesville airport is convenient,” he says.