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A pair of Grevy’s zebras, part of a herd that lives in an 11-acre corral at White Oak Plantation.
Photo by Max Marbut
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Report: White Oak Plantation for sale

by Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Howard Gilman Foundation has put White Oak Plantation up for sale.

White Oak is a 7,400-acre plantation and animal conservation center about 30 miles north of Jacksonville in Yulee on the Florida-Georgia border.

With a conference center and lodging, the secluded property has hosted presidents and personalities, including former President Bill Clinton and ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The Journal said that White Oak is the latest victim of the housing bust. The foundation operates the property with proceeds of its 96 percent investment in Gilman Building Products Co., a private lumber business founded by Gilman’s family in the early 1980s.

Revenue at the lumber company was hit hard by the housing downturn that began in 2008, according to the Journal. It said the value of the foundation’s assets has fallen from $175 million in 2008 to $127 million at the end of 2010, according to tax filings.

It reported that the foundation initially responded to declining income from the building company by cutting back on program funding and reducing the White Oak staff by nearly half.

The Gilman family, founders of Gilman Paper Co. in Georgia, bought the plantation in 1938, according to reports. Howard Gilman died in 1998, leaving the Howard Gilman Foundation, based in New York, to run White Oak and support other causes. The Gilman International Conservation Foundation has since been created to help support conservation center programs and international efforts.

Last week, the foundation put the property up for sale, the Journal reported.

It said the foundation estimates the value of the property at $30 million and hopes to find a wealthy individual or investors who might turn White Oak into a high-end resort or conference center.

The Journal quoted Jacksonville investor and philanthropist Rick Sontag and said his firm considered but decided against buying the plantation.

“Who’s going to pick it up other than some billionaire who wants it as a playground?” said Sontag, president of Spring Bay Ventures, a private-equity investment firm in Jacksonville.

The Journal said Sontag’s firm considered buying White Oak last year but decided to pass. “It has some unique characteristics, but trying to make White Oak pay for itself is pretty difficult.”

The Journal said the plantation houses 270 animals, including rhinoceroses, the ostrichlike cassowary, cheetahs and giant eland, a type of large African antelope.

It said about 60 percent of the $5 million annual cost to operate White Oak goes toward upkeep of the animals.

Daily Record reporters toured the White Oak Conservation Center in June. The center is a 600-acre facility in the center of the plantation.

Established in 1982, the center is involved in breeding and raising more than 25 species of endangered and threatened wildlife.

In addition to exotic animals, White Oak also is involved in breeding and preserving the Florida panther and the Mississippi Sandhill Crane.

The cheetah breeding program began in 1987. Since then, 141 cheetahs have been born at White Oak.

“We’re one of the few places that have been successful with cheetahs,” said Stephanie Rutan, who manages White Oak’s donor relations program, during the tour.

During the June tour, Rutan said she also serves as the liaison between the center and its financial supporters and spends much of her time conducting tours of the center and introducing its inhabitants to donors and potential donors.

“Showing the animals to visitors has been part of my job wherever I worked. It’s also my way of seeing the animals every day,” she said.

Information about the plantation and conservation center can be found at www.gilmanfoundation. org and www.wocenter.org.

kmathis@baileypub.com

356-2466

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