Vistakon sets sights on Southside Jacksonville expansion

Vistakon is expanding in South Jacksonville.
Vistakon is expanding in South Jacksonville.
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Contact-lens maker Vistakon is clearing the way for a proposed $218 million expansion at its South Jacksonville campus, submitting construction plans to the city on Thursday, two days after City Council approved an incentives package.

Vistakon told the city and state it will create up to 100 jobs at an average wage of $65,000 plus benefits with the project, which involves making the latest generation of its Acuvue disposable contact lenses. It has said it also had been considering its plant in Ireland for the work.

The new space and jobs boost Vistakon to almost 2,000 employees and close to 800,000 square feet of space, a far sight from its origins as the Frontier Contact Lens Co. that started in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1950s before its move to Jacksonville.

Vistakon, now the Jacksonville-based division of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Inc., submitted plans for a 22,887-square-foot expansion to its 69-acre office, manufacturing, distribution, laboratory and research campus at 7500 Centurion Parkway in the Deerwood Park South center at southeast Southside and Butler boulevards.

The company already is adding 100,000 square feet to its distribution facilities there.

Plans for the latest addition, called Phase 6, were filed with the St. Johns River Water Management District in July. Those documents showed the 23,000-square-foot will boost the campus to 788,401 square feet of space.

Council approved Resolution 2013-521 that provides for a $6.9 million Recapture Enhanced Value grant, which represents 50 percent of the incremental increase in property taxes. It would be paid annually for 10 years after the expansion is completed and on the tax rolls. The agreement states the project must be completed by the end of 2017.

Also, the state would provide a $1.5 million Quick Action Closing Fund contribution and a $225,000 Quick Response Training grant.

The city said the company has 90 days to sign off on the deal and that the state still must approve its incentives.

Vistakon promises to retain 1,872 existing jobs in Jacksonville. The proposed capital investment includes building improvements and machinery.

In addition to the expansion, Vistakon plans to renovate 15,000 square feet of space.

The city said the $218 million comprises $20 million in building improvements, $188 million in purchases of machinery and equipment, and $10 million to upgrade two product lines.

The website outlines Vistakon's history.

What ultimately became known as Acuvue brand contact lenses were first manufactured at Frontier Contact Lens in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1950s.

As Frontier grew, it opened a branch in Jacksonville and was headed by Seymour Marco, an optometrist with significant experience fitting what were then hard contact lenses.

After a few years, Marco bought out Frontier's owners and grew the business dramatically.

During the 1970s, Marco developed a new hydrogel material and Frontier began making soft contact lenses. In 1981, he sold the company to Johnson & Johnson, who renamed it Vistakon.

The company created a method that allowed it to increase production from 100,000 contact lenses a day to 1 million a day.

In 1987, it launched Acuvue, the first seven-day extended-wear disposable contact lens.

Johnson & Johnson Vision Products bought the Deerwood Park property in 1992 and built nine structures, the first completed in 1993.

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