A Well-Kept Secret… Until Now

Suwannee County Economic Development

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A great place to live, invest or visit, Suwannee County has a lot to offer and is making that known to the world. Located in Northern Florida, halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Suwannee County has economic development opportunities and a community with a quality of life that is unmatched.
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Residents and visitors enjoy rural living and picturesque natural surroundings without sacrificing access to the services and amenities of a larger center. With all of this and more, Suwannee County has been a well-kept secret that can no longer remain hidden.

At the forefront of the push to share Suwannee County’s story with the world is the Suwannee County Economic Development Office, with Director Dr. Alvin B. Jackson Jr. at the helm. Jackson and his office have undertaken many efforts to raise its presence and increase its opportunities and exposure by streamlining the investment process and facilitating economic and community development.

Though the history of Suwannee County dates back to 1858 – when it was the 37th county to be created in the state of Florida – it was not until late-2013 to early-2014 that the board of county commissioners made economic development one of its priorities and established a standalone economic development office. Economic development previously operated under the auspices of the chamber of commerce.

“I came on board in 2014 and began to lay out what I would call an economic development policy, creating – building – the foundation that would actually support our economic development initiatives,” Jackson recounted. “We have developed a very informative website. We began developing an inventory of buildings, structures, land, and these efforts are ongoing. In addition, more importantly we have facilitated the creation of policy framework with the County Commissioners to position Suwannee County as an excellent choice for new businesses and industry development.”

Economic development is the top priority of the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners. Therefore, the Suwannee County Economic Development Office has been given the task of introducing an economic development program dedicated to aiding and recruiting business, thereby improving the economic vitality of the community.

Suwannee County Economic Development Office has dedicated a great deal of resources and effort to planning the procedures for investment. The Board of County Commissioners has adopted new land use and zoning regulations to foster a business-friendly, collaborative approach to economic development.

“We identified five sites, which we call ‘Employment Centers.’ That Land Use category will allow industrial uses, manufacturing, distribution, warehousing, commercial, limited retail and, depending on the type of industries that might be attracted here, the residential single and multifamily units,” Jackson explained.

Sites were identified based on a growth vision for the county and chosen to take maximum advantage of interstate and multimodal logistical connectivity. These sites are located at highway interchanges and benefit from the county’s rail infrastructure and proximity to Highway 10, Interstate 75, US Highway 90, Highway 129, Highway 136, the Port of Jacksonville and airports in Live Oak, Jacksonville, Gainesville and Tallahassee.

“I-75 goes north and south, from Tampa to Atlanta. You can take 75 right into Miami and I-10 basically goes through Jacksonville to Tallahassee and west into Alabama,” he noted. “We sit eighty miles between both Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Jacksonville has a major port, which is eighty miles away, so we become attractive for companies needing access to a port.”

Suwannee County is within the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) designation associated with the port; its location enables the county to support multiple industries that rely heavily on infrastructure and logistics to access markets across the country and around the world.

The Suwannee County Commissioners adopted a unique and attractive Business Incentive tool, which is performance based, that rewards companies for job creation, average wage rates, and total capital investment. The permitting process is one stop and streamlined. There are other tax credits and refunds, exemptions and workforce development programs in place to support new and existing industry and businesses to be more competitive.

The county has strong economic value in its excellent transportation and logistical network, low taxes with no personal income tax and low corporate tax, affordable and available land, a pro-business community and a skilled and available workforce.

Suwannee County has a diverse labor force of nearly 19,000 with seventy-three percent having graduated from high school. Graduate degrees are held by 10.5 percent of Suwannee County residents. The RiverOak Technical College, Florida Gateway College, North Florida Community College, the University of Florida and Florida State University are all near Suwannee County.

Suwannee County can pull labor from a hundred-mile radius. Local educational institutions, as well as the Suwannee County School Board and organizations like North Florida Career Source and Workforce Florida, Inc., work together toward workforce development to ensure a skilled and available workforce is available to fill the needs of the ever-growing economy.

“We are an agricultural community, and agriculture has changed. It has evolved from simple mechanics to the digital age, so for instance, Klaussner Sawmill is the world’s largest sawmill by output, and it is totally a digitally-run, environmentally-clean entity,” explained Jackson.

“When you look at agribusiness in Suwannee County, farming equipment is GPS guided. It’s all programmed, so skill sets for agribusiness communities are now having to be trained.” Even traditional industries now require skills training and workforce development.

Suwannee County is attractive to many industries. For this reason Suwanee County Economic Development Office has targeted several sectors that suit its natural assets and available resources. These are transportation and logistics, agribusiness, clean technologies, manufacturing, ecotourism and agritourism, sports and recreation, retirement services, cultural arts and music, television and film production.

Tourism is an important economic driver for the County and the State alike; visitors are drawn there for various recreational (and respite) opportunities. “We have world-class caves that folks from all over the world come to visit. We have biking. We have the famous Suwannee River. Folks come and fish and spend a lot of time on the river,” Jackson said.

The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and Campground hosts events throughout the year and has done so since it opened in 1983. Operated by the Suwannee County Development Authority, it is a one-of-a-kind music park that brings big name acts and a diverse variety of musical styles to the county.

“We have the Suwannee Music Park, which brings in over 600,000 guests a year to the different music venues. It’s a campground, so individuals are coming, and they are camping – traditional camping all the way to the glamping,” explained Jackson.

All of these things make Suwannee County a great place to live and visit. The county’s magnificent waterways provide a host of boating, fishing and swimming activities, and its 170 miles of wilderness trails are perfect for walking, hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.

“It’s a balancing act,” Jackson noted, “Because you have a lot of folks that have come to Suwannee County for the quality of life and no traffic. At the same time, economic development helps to fund the infrastructure, to create jobs, and really lessens what I would call the impact on residents,” he said.

“We do have a group that says ‘We don’t want to grow too much. We don’t want all that traffic, and we don’t want to lose that quality of life.’ It is important – from an economic development standpoint – to make sure they understand that we need to be a diverse economy and really understand the type of industries we want in Suwannee County, so we don’t lose the natural assets we have.”

The county continues to work to ensure zoned, shovel-ready land is available and the permitting process is streamlined, and efficient for those who wish to relocate. Suwannee County Economic Development Office serves as a one-stop resource for current and prospective business and industry that are interested in the county’s many assets.

Smart, planned economic growth is the mission and goal. Suwannee County’s Economic Development Office is working in partnership with the local chamber of commerce, business leaders and organizations like the development authority to collaboratively achieve this goal.

“The Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners, as well as the City of Live Oak and City Council have stepped up to the plate, and pretty much all of the decisions that are being made are with economic development in mind. They have asked important questions such as, ‘How, at the end of the day, does this create jobs for our residents, and how do we attract industry that expands our tax base?’” said Jackson.

The ultimate goal for Jackson and the development office is to increase the quality of life for its residents, decrease the unemployment rate and create opportunities for families to secure well-paying jobs and affordable housing. “The purpose of Local Economic Development (LED) is to build up the economic capacity here in Suwannee County and Live Oak, FL, to improve its economic future and the quality of life for all. We are partnering with public, business and nongovernmental sector entities to work collectively to create better conditions for economic growth and employment generation here in our community. Additionally, industries often help supplement the cost of cultural arts programs, social services and youth sporting and recreational activities.”

Jackson hopes that further economic development will allow residents to benefit from more of these advantages. This is an opportunity to improve the services and amenities while strengthening the job pool.

“We are here, and we have excellent assets to offer,” said Jackson. He is ready to share the Suwannee County secret with the world. “It is happening now, and the numbers will begin to show – most importantly – that the lives of people are beginning to see the benefits of economic development in the county.”

May 26, 2017, 10:50 AM EDT

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