By Caitlyn Finnegan and Chris Eversole
Community support is building for Envision Alachua, Plum Creek’s planning project for its 65,000 acres in Alachua County.
More than 100 people attended a recent community workshop held at the Martin Luther King Center on a rainy night. Participants listened intently as Todd Powell, Plum Creek’s senior director of real estate, described the importance of the Envision Alachua process for timber company Plum Creek, which is one of the largest landowner in the United States.
“We see this process as a model in our portfolio for how we can maximize the return to both the company and the community,” Powell said.
The group was diverse, both in terms of background (longtime residents, government officials, professionals with specialized backgrounds, college students) and geographic location. About half of the participants live in eastern Alachua County, and about half live in the Gainesville area.
Albert White, who has a long history of community involvement, said that the educational opportunities and jobs that emerge from the Envision Alachua process should be wide-ranging—from GED to PhD. He also said that Envision Alachua’s priority should be to help eastern Alachua County become more competitive economically. “This isn’t about creating a residential community—it’s about creating job opportunities.”
Participants rolled up their sleeves as they split into small groups and drew on maps to pinpoint spots for potential development of Plum Creek land.
The discussion focused on the 17,000 acres east of Newnan’s Lake from Hawthorne up to State Road 26 that the Envision Alachua task force has selected as the focus of economic development combined with environmental protection.
Rob Brinkman, a veteran environmental advocate, suggested expanding the Hawthorne area. “It’s better to expand an existing city than to build a new one,” he said.
Dorothy Brown agreed, saying, “Hawthorne needs a boost.”
Participants said they hoped that Georgia Pacific would reopen its Hawthorne area plywood plant, which closed in 2011, laying off 400 employees.
As the talk became more specific, participants brought up challenges. Several participants suggested that the biggest challenge to development is creating a water and sewer system to serve new development of any sort,.
“Having adequate sewer and water is essential,” said participant Stephanie Seawright. While the sewer and water infrastructure is missing, she considered the transportation infrastructure in the area is a big asset. This infrastructure includes U.S. 301, State Route 26 and a major CSX rail line.
Task Force Works on Sector Plan
At its latest meeting, the task force discussed development of a sector plan with Plum Creek representatives and four consultants.
Sasaki Associates’ Fred Merrill described sector planning as a way to create a master plan for projects of 15,000 acres or more.
The task force is making suggestions for a sector plan that will create a framework of urban development around the existing forest, wetlands and lakes in the area.
Drawing on numbers from similar “benchmark” cities such as Athens, Ga., and Austin, Texas, Avalanche Consulting Group measured Gainesville and Alachua County’s baseline data for economic growth, business climate data and workforce population.
Among its findings were static growth patterns for the county, a need to expand transportation infrastructure and a growing presence of emerging industries with high projected job growth.
“This is only a snapshot of all the data we are currently looking at,” said Amy Holloway, president of Texas-based Avalanche Consulting.
“The next phase will be going deeper into the community to understand the story behind the numbers.”
At the task force meeting, facilitator Daniel Iaconfano of Berkeley-base MIG Inc. discussed possible development prototypes that could be applied in Alachua County, such as University Park at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Centennial Research Park at North Carolina State University. The urban centers spin off research being conducted at nearby universities and provide a place for professionals to both work and live comfortably.
“Work, live, learn, start a company, shop; it’s all of that in one compact place,” Iaconfano said. “The small footprint in terms of land use fits in with our goals of conservation and still allows for the development intensity and quality environment people will want to live in.”
Besides urban research-and-development centers, Iaconfano also discussed a possible factory location that could bring thousands of manufacturing jobs to the region—similar to the 800-acre Volkswagen factory in Tennessee.
Powell and Merrill also brought up the ability to capture intellectual capital from agriculture technology and sustainability research already being conducted at the University of Florida and apply it to developing jobs that fit the 21st Century Economy.
Charles Lee, the director for advocacy for Audubon Florida, applauded Plum Creek’s efforts.
“What the company is doing regarding its holdings in Alachua County is what we hope all major landowners would do with their land holdings in the future,” Lee said.
“It’s addressing a very long-term plan for the future, and at the same time expressing that one of the first tasks is identifying those lands that should be placed in conservation holdings and designing a plan that will ultimately place those lands so they will be protected.”
Wide Variety of Suggestions
Participants in a community workshop for Envision Alachua were creative in their suggestions.
One suggestion was to create a tourist resort that would attract visitors to the lakes and other natural areas in eastern Alachua County. Another was the idea to build medical facilities that would provide specialized services to out-of-town patients.
Participants suggested developing a packing plant for blueberries grown in the area and for other crops that come in the future.
They also said that placing a truck stop in the area would benefit local residents as well serve truckers and travelers.