Charting a Course for Huge Holdings East of City.
One might think that the bull gator would do whatever it wants, but the largest landowner in the United States is inviting everyone to the table as it imagines what to do with thousands of acres east of Gainesville.
The landowner, Seattle-based Plum Creek, owns 15 percent of the total land area in the county. It acquired most of its local holdings when it purchased Georgia Pacific’s 4.7 million acre timberland division in 2001, making it the largest landowner in the county.
The company’s property in eastern Alachua County is an environmental treasure—so vast it is twice the size in area as the City of Gainesville.
Plum Creek representatives believe the land also can be an economic treasure trove.
Plum Creek is seeking the advice of stakeholders in the land’s future through a process called Envision Alachua.
This process includes the deliberations of a task force made up of community, government and academic leaders. The task force members, ranging from environmentalists to business representatives, are finding they have much in common, says Todd Powell, Plum Creek’s local director of real estate.
Task force member Scott Koons, executive director of the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council, puts the shared vision this way: “Protecting the environment and developing the economy go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
Fellow task force member Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, executive director of Alachua Conservation trust and a former county commissioner, sees the benefit of balancing environmental protection and development. He points out a study showing that property next to green space fetches $8,000 to $10,000 more than property in a dense urban setting.
Transportation IS Opportunity
Much of Plum Creek’s land in the county is in an area bordered by Hawthorne, Waldo, Windsor and Orange Heights.
The CSX rail line cuts through eight miles of the company’s land along U.S. 301 and is becoming more important as CSX devotes its other Florida track, which runs closer to the coast, to a planned high-speed rail line.
What’s more, Plum Creek is developing what it calls an inland port on 500 acres in the Lake City area. The “port” will be a hub for trucks bringing material inland from the Port of Jacksonville, Powell says.
Jacksonville shipping is expected to surge when the expansion of the Panama Canal, scheduled for 2014, doubles its capacity. And Jacksonville is in the middle of examining a multi-million dollar project to expand and deepen its port.
“The changes in the transportation system ultimately are what’s driving the opportunity for economic development,” Powell says.
He sees the potential for developing a distribution center similar to the one in the City of Alachua on the Plum Creek property along U.S. 301.
Powell vows that timber is Plum Creek’s primary business locally, and says the company plans to develop only a small percentage of its holdings.
Regardless of how it makes money on its land, Plum Creek is committed to the preservation of a hefty portion of it, Powell says.
This commitment follows the footsteps of Georgia-Pacific, which sold 10,300 acres near Lake Lochloosa to the St. Johns River Water Management District in 1993 to form the Lochloosa Conservation Area.
And in 2005, Plum Creek sold 640 acres to the Alachua Conservation Trust, which then sold it to Alachua County government. The land, known as the Phifer Flatwoods, includes part of the Hawthorne Trail and fronts State Road 20.
Locals Pleased with Planning Process
The Plum Creek task force includes residents of rural areas in eastern Alachua County. One of them is Mike Dykes, a member of the Cracker Boys Hunt Club, which leases 14,000 acres of Plum Creek land in the Lake Santa Fe area.
“I grew up here, and my kids spend a lot of time in those woods,” Dykes says. “It’s a cool place,” he says. “You hear noises that you never hear on TV. There are lots of natural resources that have to be considered.”
Despite his affinity for the land, Dykes, an engineer who travels to Jacksonville for work, recognizes the need for economic development. “Jobs are important,” he says. “It’s a reality of life.”
Fellow Cracker Boys Hunt Club member Justin Williams says he hopes Plum Creek doesn’t end its lease to the club. “I’d like to continue to be hunt, fish and hike through there,” he says. “We’re wonderful stewards of the land.”
Plum Creek’s Powell agrees, noting that hunt clubs alert the company whenever they see anything on their leased land has been disturbed.
Bobbi Walton, president of Windsor Community Services, is pleased with the visioning process. “In my heart, I always say ‘no’ to development, but this opportunity is giving us the best of both worlds,” she says.
Bright Light for East Gainesville
Any development of Plum Creek land in eastern Alachua County is bound to have an impact on East Gainesville.
Former County Commissioner Tom Coward is a member of the Envision Gainesville Task Force. He’s witnessed many other planning efforts that involved East Gainesville, going back to the 1970s, including:
- 1986 study that led to development of the Food Lion plaza on Hawthorne Road;
- 1997 study that was followed by creation of the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center, also on Hawthorne Road; and
- 2003 study, after which the Super Walmart on Waldo Road was built.
Despite the previous progress, East Gainesville has not attracted sustained economic development, Coward says. “We need a drawing card,” he says. “We don’t have any beaches or tourist attractions.”
Hutchinson, who lives in East Gainesville, says the many neglected and abandoned buildings in the area detract from the area’s prosperity. “People won’t drive past that blight,” he says.
Hutchinson suggests bulldozing the dilapidated property in the area.
Developer and real estate broker Ed Dix says getting the city to enforce building codes in the area would go a long way. “The city’s restrictions aren’t being upheld like they are in the rest of the city,” he says. “You can open your eyes and know you’re in East Gainesville. That’s sad.”
Task force member Vivian Filer, who served on the city’s code enforcement board, says neighbors need to report code violations. “Improving the appearance of the area isn’t a matter of spending a lot of money,” she says. “It’s about keeping things clean.”
Filer chairs the board of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, which is restoring the historic nightclub that a number of well-known African American musicians came to in its heyday.
Projects like the Cotton Club and a subdivision that Dix is building on Waldo Road are also making a positive impact, Filer says.
East Gainesville has the potential to become the home for jobs in manufacturing and processing agricultural goods, Coward believes. Plum Creek as well as the University of Florida and Santa Fe College have the resources to help move in that direction, he says.
“I’m excited about having a large land owner with deep pockets take a long-range view,” he says. “This planning process can be a game-changer for all of eastern Alachua County.”