The site boasts many of the same features that characterize a Huntsville, Alabama, site that attracted an auto manufacturing plant.
By Steve Bornhoft
For Okaloosa County, the past year has been a stage-setting one on the economic development front.
Central to that effort was a vote by county commissioners to secure a purchase option on 1,700 acres located on Interstate 10. The parcel is part of the 11,000-acre Shoal River Ranch and also offers frontage on U.S. 90 and a CSX railroad line.
With site selection consultants and others, the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, headed by executive director Nathan Sparks, has been talking up the site for about four years. The purchase option makes things more real.
Prospective tenants are likely to be encouraged, too, by the county’s successful application for Triumph Gulf Coast dollars — money recovered by the Florida attorney general for economic damages that resulted from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — for extending sewer and water lines along U.S. 90 to the site. The amount of the award was $1.4 million.
“We have received great feedback on the site from consultants and business decision makers who are all very bullish on what it offers,” Sparks said. “They recognize that the Shoal River site is a special piece of property, and they have encouraged us to do everything we can to get the right sets of development eyes to look at it and to make sure the community is in a position to make things happen there.”
That positive feedback led the council to strongly encourage the county to take steps to tie up the property.
Too, the council has made it a point to study what went right in Alabama leading up to the decision by Toyota and Mazda to locate a plant in Huntsville.
The planned $1.4 billion plant, called Project New World, will represent a joint venture between the two automakers. The plant is expected to employ 4,000 workers at an average salary of $50,000 and to produce about 300,000 vehicles a year. Already, Huntsville is home to a Toyota engine plant. Toyota president Akio Toyoda cited his company’s experience with Huntsville’s high-quality workforce as a key factor in the decision to build an assembly plant there.
“The Huntsville site,” Sparks said, “in terms of size and scale and amenities, is similar to our Shoal River site.”
Economic development officials in Alabama first started promoting the Huntsville property 10 years ago when Volkswagen was shopping sites for a plant that ultimately went to Chattanooga, Tennessee. That plant, which commenced production in April 2011, employs more than 2,000 workers and churns out about 150,000 Passats a year.
“The consultants who were managing the Volkswagen site search really implored the community in Huntsville to make the property there as competitive as possible and to position it for future opportunities,” Sparks said. “They did just that and, a decade later, they are celebrating a monumental economic development victory.”
Sparks views the Alabama success as an example of what can happen when local officials heed the advice of people like site selection consultants in positions of influence who believe that a particular property can be made competitive with the right strategic approach and investment.
“Because we already have been focusing on this site for three or four years, it’s not going to be a 10-year effort for us,” Sparks predicted.
“We’re a good ways down the road, and certainly the option that the county has on the property and the application for Triumph funds for water and sewer improvements helps solidify the case for this property. Plus, Enterprise Florida is very much a partner in this effort.
“It is going to be a true transformative site. There are not many sites like it in North Florida or throughout the whole state. There are few properties that can be classified as megasites. Anything which lands at Shoal River Ranch will be of a scale that will affect all of Northwest Florida in a favorable way.”
Sparks and his team have brought the Shoal River site to the attention of heavy equipment manufacturers, in addition to automakers and to tire companies who may wish to build research and development facilities including a test track along with a manufacturing plant.
In conversation, however, Sparks continued to return to auto plants.
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