Business and government leaders—with the help from Gainesville business community and UF—have built the largest business base in the county.
The City of Alachua is a place of economic contrasts. Cowboys work cattle on horseback (like their families did in the 1860s) while cutting-edge companies are providing cures that benefit hundreds of thousands.
Three distribution centers within the sprawling city employ 1,500 workers and generate an annual payroll of $65 million, while businesses in the historic downtown specialize in everything from the martial arts to used clothing.
“We have a little bit of everything in Alachua,” says Tom Shaw, as he finishes rounding up a group of cattle at a pen along County Road 241.
The economic diversity of the city that calls itself “The Good Life Community” is the result of both luck and grit.
Local business and government leaders have led the effort, with strong help from the countywide Council for Economic Outreach and the University of Florida.
“The chamber of commerce and the city realized that the business community was going to have its ups and downs,” Mayor Gib Coerper says. “Everyone worked together to create jobs while maintaining our quality of life.”
The city’s economic expansion has brought with it a steady growth in population. The population went from 4,529 in 1990 to 6,098 in 2000—a 35 percent increase, according to Census data. Today’s estimated population of 9,139 represents a 50 percent increase from 2000.
Alachua has a much higher percentage of business property—including factories, distribution centers and stores—than the county as a whole. Thirty-two percent of the city’s property is commercial, compared to 20 percent countywide, providing a strong tax base to support city services.
“For years, we’ve had business people and the city government working together to make a lot of great things happen,” former Mayor Jean Calderwood says.
Working Through Opportunities and Challenges
During the last 50 years, Alachua has encountered both good fortune and misfortune.
In 1973, Richard Haenel founded Drilltech, a company that builds equipment used in rock drilling and surface mining. Drilltech, now owned by the global company Sandvik, has grown to more than 230 employees in Alachua.
Development of the Progress Corporate Park, which began in the late 1980s, also contributed to the community’s development.
Buildings in the park now total nearly 500,000 square feet, and about 1,100 people work there, says park manager Sandy Burgess.
A payoff of having an interstate intersection was the construction of three massive distribution centers in Alachua, starting with Dollar General’s in 1999 and followed by distributions centers for Walmart and Sysco, a major food wholesaler.
Challenges preceded today’s prosperity.
The city faced a major challenge when it was shocked by the loss of its major employer, the Copeland Sausage Plant, in 1978.
The closing put 400 employees out of work and eliminated the plant’s purchase of hogs from area farmers.
“Copeland was a huge part of the community,” says David Pope, a longtime business leader and current president of the Alachua Chamber of Commerce. “When the plant closed, this town just died.”
The sausage plant, which had operated since 1928, accounted for 44 percent of the city’s revenue—from property taxes and utility payments—when it closed, according the chamber. After the sausage plant closed, downtown withered, says Calderwood.
Alachua was down, but it wasn’t out.
The city gradually rebuilt, capitalizing on its assets, which include an intersection along I-75 and a sewer plant that was built before the sausage plant closed.
Alachua benefits from its large incorporated area, providing ample land for diverse development, ranging from the site of the distribution centers at the northwest corner of the city to the Turkey Creek subdivision at the southeast corner. The city’s total area of 29 square miles is more than half the size of the 49 square miles within the Gainesville city limits.
Construction of the sewer plant in 1976, with plenty of excess capacity, was a building block for Alachua’s economy. The plant—which was later doubled in capacity—became critical to major industrial and residential growth that continues today.
“The city commission was ahead of its time and realized it needed the sewer system to be in place to attract businesses,” Coerper says. “It was a wonderful decision.”
“The main difference between Alachua and High Springs economically is that we have a sewer system,” says Rick Robertson, owner of Conestogas Restaurant.
Downtown Comes Back
Business and city leaders responded.
Several businessmen bought abandoned buildings and started renovating them. The city redesigned Main Street, with ample parking and a pedestrian-friendly feel.
In the late ’80s, the city began hosting an annual three-day Good Life Jubilee each October, an event that helped bring visitors from Gainesville and other areas to learn of the town’s charm, Calderwood says.
Robertson opened Conestogas in 1988, and its business grew by double-digit percentages annually from 1989 through 1996.
Downtown flourished, with a group of new specialty shops supplementing long-term ones, such as the historic Ace Hardware Store.
Another misfortune was the closing of a battery plant located just outside the city limits on U.S. 441 in the early 2000s.
The plant, which General Electric built in 1963, employed 2,000 workers at its peak. It experienced ups and down over time, with a series of owners trying to make a go of various battery technologies in the face of growing competition from Asia. But by 2002, Moltec Power Systems sold the plant to a Chinese company that closed it and shipped some of the equipment to China.
Progress Corporate Park Evolves
In the 1980s, UF President Robert Marston set his sights on a 200-acre parcel of land located between U.S. 441 and San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park south of downtown Alachua that was owned by the UF Foundation. He envisioned it as a place where both companies based on UF-developed technology could develop and where private companies could flourish.
Marston sought out UF alumni Andrew Hines, who was then president of Florida Progress Corporation, the owner of Florida Power. Hines set up a development company that bought the land and developed it.
The park developed slowly at first. It picked up momentum with two events—the opening of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator near the park’s entrance in 1995 and city approval of a change in the park’s development plan in 1999 to allow for a more diverse range of uses.
The Sid Martin building was the first incubator in Alachua County. It has served its purpose of giving new biotech companies, mostly based on UF research, an affordable home with ample equipment. Twenty-eight companies that started there have “graduated” to their own facilities or being acquired, and nine companies are housed at the incubator, according to Associate Director Patti Breedlove.
One of the most successful companies in the Progress Corporate Park is RTI Biologics. The company, which is a leading provider of implants used for applications including orthopedic and dental surgery, occupies 133,000 square feet of space in three buildings and 38,000 of leased space, says spokeswoman Jenny Highlander. RTI employs 500 people in Alachua and another 200 at other locations around the globe.
SNH Medical Office Properties Trust, the current owner of Progress Corporate Park, continues to look for new companies to locate there.
Meanwhile, the city has rezoned 280 acres of land owned by the UF Foundation for additional business development.
From Cornfields to Distribution Centers
The Dollar General, Walmart and Sysco distribution centers stand on land that the Pope family purchased in the 1960s.
W.D. “Buddy” Pope, brothers Inman and James Lewis and some other partners bought about 2,000 acres where the distribution centers now stand to grow corn and other produce in 1976, says David Pope, W.D. Pope’s son.
In 1979, IBM purchased the land of the farming partners. “IBM was banking property near major universities for future business growth,” David Pope says.
IBM never developed the property, and the Pope and Lewis families and their partners farmed it under a lease with IBM.
IBM decided to sell its land. Jacksonville-based Waco Properties, purchased the land, which was more than 2,000 acres, in 1998. David Pope, who had left the family business to work for Waco, helped put the deal together.
“IBM had obtained industrial zoning, but Waco thought it would be a while before anything industrial would develop,” Pope says.
Things changed. “Very quickly, and to our surprise, Dollar General showed up,” Pope says. “They came out with the Council for Economic Outreach.”
Dollar General was attracted by the close access to I-75 as well as the existence of a CSX rail line to the area, Pope says.
The Dollar General move to Alachua split the community.
A vocal group of residents opposed the agreement that provided Dollar General with incentives to bring jobs and property tax dollars to the community, Pope recalls.
Those incentives included the city buying the land from Waco at a discounted price and donating it Dollar General. In addition, the city agreed to run sewer and water service to the property, and Alachua County government agreed to upgrade the road to the distribution center to handle heavy trucks.
“There were a lot of battles over this,” he says. “Some people thought we were trying to take advantage of everything. We weren’t. We were just trying to make a deal work in the long term.”
Next came Walmart. It originally wanted to build a distribution center in the Ocala area, Pope recalls.
“The horse people in Marion County fought them, and they went looking for another place. Alachua was the other place.”
Alachua’s welcoming of economic development has paid off as it competes with other communities to attract new businesses, Pope says.
Waco is an “investor” in the Council for Economic Outreach, an arm of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Pope notes.
“CEO has been instrumental in helping us with large companies,” Pope says. “It’s equipped to help with economic development in ways that we, as a private company, can’t.”
New Residential and Commercial Development
Over time, residential development in the city grew. Some of the development during the 1990s included relatively expensive homes on large lots bought by professionals from Gainesville who sought a rural lifestyle.
On the other hand, some subdivisions are quite affordable. Savannah Station, located near the distribution centers, offers new homes priced under $140,000.
Qualifying buyers using USDA financing can purchase homes in Savannah Station for $1,000 down, with payments, including taxes and insurance, under $1,000 a month, says developer Blake Fletcher.
In the past 15 years, mixed-use development has occurred between downtown and I-75.
Hitchcock’s Markets, long a mainstay at the eastern end of Main Street, relocated to the Alachua Towne Center, which combines a variety of stores, restaurants, banks and professional offices. Behind the Towne Center’s business area is a group of homes grouped closely together.
Alachua’s adoption of standards that encourage compact development have helped the city expand while keeping its small-town character, Mayor Coerper believes. “We needed the regulations because we were in danger of urban sprawl,” he says.