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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Oct. 9, 201905:20 AM EST

Economic directors of counties surrounding Duval share their challenges

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Representatives take part in a panel discussion sponsored by CREW Jacksonville.
by: Caren Burmeister Contributing Writer

Regional economic development directors welcome growth in the Jacksonville metro area, but they’re frustrated about the lack of infrastructure, housing and workforce.

Cathy Chambers, economic development manager with Florida Power & Light Co., moderated a panel discussion Oct. 1 at The River Club Downtown.

About 100 people attended the program sponsored by CREW Jacksonville.

Several of the directors spoke about Northeast Florida’s “hub-and-spoke” economic model, referring to Jacksonville as the central hub and the outlying counties as spokes. 

Health care dominates the region’s growing industries, followed by financial services, IT, logistics and advanced manufacturing. 

But the region’s economic directors are challenged to accommodate those industries.

While Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties struggle with infrastructure, Clay County faces housing challenges and Nassau County lacks an adequate workforce. 

Here’s what the directors said:

Nassau County

Laura DiBella, executive director of the Nassau County Economic Development Board, said the health care industry is making huge advances.

HCA Healthcare bought 55 acres for $15.8 million west of the Wildlight community near Interstate 95 and Florida A1A.

Baptist Health bought nearly 26 acres for a 50,000-square-foot medical office less than a half a mile from the HCA property.  

Less than a half-mile from Baptist Health’s property, construction is underway at UF Health Wildlight for a 23,331-square-foot medical office building and a future 5,888-square-foot building at Florida A1A and William Burgess Boulevard. It’s scheduled for completion in December. 

“That’s a lot of investment,” DiBella said. 

She said health care is needed in Nassau, noting the county’s population grew by 3.7% in the past year. 

Top heavy in residential development, Nassau County is “heavily recruiting heavy industrial,” DiBella said.  

The county is making headway with Crawford Diamond Industrial Park, a 1,814-acre park within 18 miles of I-95, I-10 and Jacksonville for heavy manufacturing, assembly, warehouse and distribution. 

Meanwhile, the Port of Fernandina is planning a container and barge service between Charleston and Jacksonville to reduce truck traffic on congested roads. 

The port recently received federal designation as an operator on the American Marine Highway, signaling that it’s eligible for federal money.

The port, which is being dredged to 40 feet at its berth, also plans to add more cranes and cargo-handling equipment. 

Clay County

J.J. Harris, president of the Clay County Economic Development Corporation, said about 1,000 homes were built in Clay County last year. 

Harris said that’s not enough to meet the county’s needs, especially with the addition of the First Coast Expressway.

The 46-mile, limited-access toll road will cross parts of Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties and link I-10 in Duval County with I-95 in St. Johns County. 

Recently, the PARC Group began working with the Davis Family to build a 4,000-home community with a mix of retail and offices in Green Cove Springs, near the First Coast Expressway.

“We’ve got to have professional workforce housing,” Harris said. 

Clay County also needs more local employers: 73% of its workforce commutes to jobs outside the county, Harris said. Employment centers not only would keep residents and taxes in the county, it would improve traffic and save money on road construction, he said. 

Two of Clay County’s health care employers soon will add workers. A $126 million expansion is underway at Orange Park Medical Center and a $23 million expansion is taking place at Ascension St. Vincent’s Clay County. 

St. Johns County

Melissa Glasgow, St. Johns County director of economic development, said the county, now home to about 254,000 people, grew about 4% last year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, St. Johns County is the eighth fastest-growing county in the nation. 

The county encourages commercial office development with incentives that recently helped cinch a 62,750-square-foot office building in Nocatee, she said.

St. Johns County also is attracting health care facilities.

Baptist HealthPlace will offer primary care and multiple specialties on 12 acres west of Nocatee Town Center when it opens in the summer of 2020.

Flagler Health+ has agreed to buy 40 acres in the Durbin Park development for a hospital, outpatient surgical service and cancer care.

“Health care is probably the largest sector right now,” Glasgow said.

Growth also affects the Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St. Augustine. 

As part of its airport master plan update, the county proposes to build another runway west of U.S. 1 to supplement the main runway that’s become popular for pilot training. 

Putnam County

Brian Bergen, vice president for economic development at the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, said the county needs more housing in anticipation of the First Coast Expressway in neighboring St. Johns and Clay counties.

“When is it going to spill over?” he asked.

A New Jersey company recently bought a vacant building in Putnam for a manufacturing facility. 

Comarco, a New Jersey food processing company that specializes in eggplant, bought a 52,000-square-foot spec building in a Palatka business park in March. The company is spending $12 million on the project that will employ about 120 people.

“The Northeast is easy pickings right now,” Bergen said, referring to companies that are tired of high taxes and cold winters.

“They love coming to Florida.”

Flagler County

Katrina Austin, project manager with the Flagler County Department of Economic Development Opportunity, said the county approved 35,000 housing units for development this year.

Flagler County needs industrial centers and the infrastructure to support them, she said.

The county is attracting business with a new construction tax credit program, which credits back a portion of property taxes to companies that move there. 

Flagler County has three projects through that program, including a 255,000-square-foot furniture assembly and distribution plant that has the largest footprint in the county. 

Developing a health care workforce also is on the agenda.

The University of North Florida is proposing a hub for health care education called UNF MedNex in Palm Coast's Town Center Innovation District.

The school would train students in nursing, rehabilitation, counseling, nutrition, hard sciences, medical engineering and related fields.

“Health care is huge right now,” Austin said. “We do need these facilities.”

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