By Caitlyn Finnegan
Envision Alachua task force members, land-use planners and Plum Creek are one step closer to a cohesive 50-year vision for the future use of the timber company’s 65,000 acres of land spanning from north central to eastern Alachua County.
During the latest long-term planning meeting on Thursday night, all 31 members of the task force agreed on the proposed long-term framework map and supported the concepts for the detailed specific area plans presented by the private landholding company.
“After living in Windsor for forty years and the best we were ever offered was a landfill, any changes that could happen to the area from this type model community could only help,” said Bobbi Walton, the president of community service for Windsor. “This is the greatest thing that could happen to the east side of Gainesville, and can serve as a model for the rest of the nation.”
Current projections of land use include more than 40,000 acres of conservation easements, lands set aside for economic opportunities including advanced manufacturing facilities near Hawthorne, and mixed-use areas that could combine research facilities, agriculture and private industries with the goal of potentially creating 24,000 to 36,000 new jobs over the next 50 years.
Although Plum Creek won’t take the sector plan, or long-term plan for future land use, to county commissioners until sometime later this year, the company has made massive efforts to reach out to business, community and academic leaders to form an inclusive vision for the east side of the county.
“It’s a matter of sitting down at the table with each other and talking out any differences,” said Todd Powell, the senior director of real estate for Plum Creek. “The more we talk, the more we find out how interrelated and interdependent things are – economic opportunities, community development and conservation are all linked and can be mutually beneficial. That recognition has helped the task force establish common grounds and move forward.”
The company’s community-driven planning process is the first of its kind in the state, and possibly the first of its scale in the country. Although other sector plans, such as West Bay and Clear Springs, have been approved in Florida, none have come close to the size and collaborative design being convened by Plum Creek.
“A lot of great work went into those other communities, but the thing is many of those plans were born from conflict and controversy,” said Charles Lee, the director of advocacy for conservation group Audubon Florida.
Lee said the opportunity that is often missing in many land-use plans is the ability to work with a large enough piece of land to make a difference for the future of the community, making the Plum Creek landholdings a particularly unique situation statewide for community, economic opportunity and conservation planning.
The task force members are encouraging a vision for “agri-tech villages” as the “anchor” of the new communities These concentrated communities could combine private company and academic research facilities with agriculture plots to build an economic hub along Hawthorne Road. The task force vision is also to preserve the quality and character of already established communities.
Dr. Dale Brill, the former president for Florida’s Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the group’s economic progress advisor says the community should work to turn the region’s current economic strategy “upside down.” By first focusing on geo-marketing, or recruiting people and businesses that match up with the community’s interests and aspirations, the area has a better chance of retaining those businesses with a sturdy base of an entrepreneurial-based economy.
“The old saying goes; ‘a rising tide floats all boats,’” Brill said. “Up until now, the focus has been on the boats. Now we need to focus on the tide.”
Task force members brought up a few issues of concern over the course of the meeting, including Alachua County’s current income disparity between east and west, a lack of economic diversification and the challenge of retaining talent with competitive jobs.
Lead facilitator Daniel Iacofano said issues such as these are the biggest motivators behind answering the questions to “why here and why now.” By acting now to create dynamic linkages between emerging industries in the region, the community stands to gain much more economically in the coming years, Iacofano said.
“We have the opportunity to totally change the game with this process,” said Steven Seibert, former secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs. “But at the end of the day, it still has to get approved. We have to all be willing to stand up when it comes time and help it move forward. Let’s carry this ball over and get this finished.”
The next task force meeting will take place June 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the UF Hilton, 1714 SW 34th St.