Florida Secretary of Commerce Gray Swoope said this week the state, including Northeast Florida, is competing for mega-projects that have eluded it for decades, and that includes potential auto manufacturing plants.
"We're at the table now, aggressively," Swoope (pronounced "swope") said Wednesday during an interview after a presentation to more than 160 people at the Clay County Economic Development Council at the Thrasher-Horne Conference Center in Orange Park.
In Northeast Florida, he named two sites in particular that could compete for a mega-project, which could require up to 2,000 acres: the city-owned Cecil Commerce Center in west Duval County, especially for aviation and aerospace projects, and the privately owned almost 2,000-acre Crawford Diamond Industrial Park in Nassau County for automotive production.
Swoope had been in the economic development business for more than 25 years when Gov. Rick Scott named him president of Enterprise Florida and state commerce secretary in February 2011. Swoope previously served as executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority.
Swoope said during his formal speech that Scott hired him to pursue an economic development strategy that focuses on internal market growth by removing unnecessary regulatory barriers; helps industries with natural affinities grow, such as tourism and port-related jobs; and competes for projects, including with financial incentives when necessary.
When his Florida appointment was announced, a news release listed his accomplishments at the Mississippi Development Authority, including convincing companies such as Toyota, PACCAR, GE Aviation, SeverStahl and Automated Data Processing to build facilities in Mississippi.
He said he and his Florida team are "relentless" in competing for large projects.
"Before I came here, on these type projects, I never saw Florida at the table," he said.
Swoope said that's changed. He said that until recently, site selection consultants would say one in 20 clients of that size would consider Florida.
"Now it's one in four," he said.
Swoope said his office has been talking to owners of the Crawford Diamond site, JAXUSA Partnership executives and others, but he declined to elaborate about what might be possible on the Nassau property.
Jacksonville-based Rayonier owns Crawford Diamond. Its TerraPointe Services Inc. subsidiary is developing the Crawford Diamond park in west Nassau County. The property has been certified as a mega-site, which means it has been determined to be a viable location for a mega-project.
It has been approved for up to 10.5 million square feet of industrial uses, including manufacturing, assembly, warehousing and distribution as well as an intermodal inland port or logistics center. The CSX and Norfolk Southern rail lines cross at the property.
Daniel Camp, director of project management for TerraPointe Services Inc., told the Daily Record several weeks ago that Enterprise Florida and Scott are supporting the park.
The mega-site certification by McCallum Sweeney Consulting of Greenville, S.C., is considered a significant step for marketing industrial properties, setting up standards that allow a user to be operational with 12 months.
Swoope said the mega-site certification is attractive for manufacturers and "automotive or aerospace or large pharmaceutical" plants because it provides "speed to the market."
Swoope said he wouldn't comment about any potential corporate prospects, so he didn't respond to a question about rumors that Volvo, the automobile and truck manufacturer based in Sweden, might be interested in a location at Crawford Diamond.
Camp and Steve Rieck, executive director of the Nassau County Economic Development Board, wouldn't confirm Volvo rumors, either, in earlier conversations. Rieck called it "just an interesting rumor" and Camp called it "a fantastic rumor."
JAXUSA Partnership, the economic-development division of the JAX Chamber, lists the area's four mega-sites as Crawford Diamond, Cecil Commerce Center, Westlake in far west Jacksonville and Woodstock in Baker County.
Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, Swoope's land of expertise, are among states that have lured and landed major automotive plants and their resulting spinoff industries, such as parts suppliers, educational and training facilities and other companies that serve them.
Without providing an estimate of the significant financial incentives it would take to recruit a large project like an auto or parts manufacturer to Florida, Swoope said the state was willing to participate.
Swoope said infrastructure improvements are the major costs for large production facilities, such as automotive plants, and those also require rail connections, transportation access to interstates and water and sewer services.
"To go after a project like that, you have to have infrastructure," he said.
Real estate developers in Northeast Florida express concern about the state's utility rates, saying they are not competitive, but Swoope said there are ways to mitigate costs for projects that have heavy energy demands. "There's nothing we can't compete with," he said.
Asked whether the state was competing for an automotive or related plant, he said: "If we were, I couldn't tell you."
Swoope said he could not talk about any prospects or projects because of confidentiality agreements.
He said that three of the state's targeted industries – advanced manufacturing, aviation/aerospace and financial services – are the most active among prospects.
Of those, advanced manufacturing comprises half of the workload, he said.
He would not elaborate about sites to accommodate Amazon.com's announced plans to invest $300 million and create 3,000 jobs in the state by the end of 2016. He said he had a confidentiality agreement with the company.
Swoope said Jacksonville's port offers a competitive advantage as well because "it gives us an opportunity to compete" for industries that require shipping.
"I love to compete."