By Carole Hawkins, [email protected]
A preserved and mounted piranha sits at the corner of Laura DiBella’s desk.
The gag gift from a colleague hardly seems to fit the intelligent and personable executive director of Nassau County’s Economic Development Board.
But competition is in DiBella’s blood. It’s what moved her quickly through the ranks of residential and commercial real estate ever since she became a licensed broker 14 years ago.
“It wasn’t the money that drove me. It was the kill,” DiBella said, “winning the deal, getting the yes.”
DiBella took the helm of the nonprofit Oct. 1.
Economic development organizations don’t run a business or own land for sale. They serve as a marketing arm for industries that do. In this respect, DiBella’s new job is a lot like her old one.
“I’m still a broker,” she said. “Nassau County is my listing.”
On the brink of change
Nassau is a rural county with a wealthy barrier-island sub-population.
It holds potential similar to that of St. Johns County, an hour to the south. Like its peer, Nassau is a bedroom community with A-rated schools and beach tourism. Though, it’s a bit more laid back of an experience. “The quieter beaches,” DiBella calls them.
When it comes to the local economy, timber company Rayonier is the dominator.
Owning 130,000 acres, if there’s a land deal in Nassau County, nine out of 10 times Rayonier is behind it.
The industrial giant has the power to define the county’s growth. Now that Rayonier has entitled 24,000 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 95 for master-planned development, Nassau sits on a precipice between its sleepy past and a more cosmopolitan future.
In its first phase, the East Nassau Community Planning Area will include 2,900 rooftops and 450,000 square feet of commercial retail and industrial space.
“It will be like St. Johns Town Center and Deerwood all rolled into one,” DiBella said. “It will be the nucleus of the county.”
The transformation will enhance, not hurt, quality of life, she said.
More traffic? The East Nassau plan will concentrate that traffic near Interstate 95, instead of diverting shoppers across the county. More industry? It’s not the paper mills of your grandfather’s day that are coming.
“Industry today is clean and automated,” DiBella said. “It’s not smokestacks and smells.”
Adding office and manufacturing to Nassau County will create an economy less dependent on its tourism and residential tax base and more resilient to housing downturns.
Pitching a diamond
To the west of the projects lies Crawford Diamond, Rayonier’s other large for-sale parcel.
Less publicized, it courts a specific type of manufacturer, one that needs a rail yard and likely wants to capitalize on the many port, highway and rail connections in Northeast Florida.
DiBella’s personal goal is to “land the big one” out there. It’s something that’s entirely doable because of the property’s differentiator.
“There are only two diamonds in Florida, and we have the better one,” DiBella said.
A diamond is where two rail lines cross, a manufacturing advantage because it grants immediate access to more routes. Nassau County’s diamond isn’t just two rail lines, but two lines owned by different railroad companies, CSX and Norfolk Southern.
The site was eyed last year by a major tire manufacturer. Had the company chosen Nassau County, it would have brought 3,500 jobs at doors open.
Manufacturers are courted by economic developers because they are the most efficient job creators, DiBella said. For every 10 manufacturing jobs brought in, 20 more jobs are created.
The competition is tough though. Nassau County is wooing the same companies as Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. That’s where DiBella’s broker instincts come into play.
“You win the deal by painting the picture, doing the sell and then closing them,” she said. “There’s too much information at their fingertips. We can focus their attention on why this is a good place to bring their company.”
It’s a game at which she’s succeeded before.
Learning to deal
A graduate of the University of Florida, DiBella’s experience spans real estate, marketing and manufacturing.
Her father owned a Fort Lauderdale company that manufactured high-precision components for aerospace. Her brother was its hand-picked successor.
He died while DiBella was in college. She came home to the family business to help fill his shoes. DiBella’s father, shaken by the tragedy, worried she was driven too much by family expectations. After two years, he told her to go find what she loved to do.
It was real estate.
In the beginning, DiBella did residential sales only, but that changed in 2006.
She was hired by Holly Real Estate in South Florida to sell an apartment complex that had been converted to condos. The downturn was just beginning and sales had ground to a halt.
“I was like, ‘Let’s sell the entire complex,’” DiBella said. And she set out to find a customer.
She didn’t get one, but she got close. After that the boss called her in and said, “I’m moving you to commercial.”
She combined it with residential work, which she also loved. It would be a residential deal a year later that made her reputation.
She listed a South Florida home with significant waterfront access, enough to hold two mega-yachts.
Other brokers’ listings nearby had languished on the market for months. DiBella received two offers in three days and sold the home for just under $4.5 million. The buzz from the deal would land her a long-term commercial client in Jacksonville — HCA Healthcare.
She represented the company on site selections for hospitals, free standing emergency rooms and general practice and specialists’ offices. Everything, big and small.
It would prepare her to one day lead Nassau County’s economic development. Healthcare follows residential growth, she said, “even more so than Publix. It really is a retail play.”
Right time and place
DiBella did deals all over Northeast Florida, including Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties. She knows their advantages, their weaknesses and how to sell against them.
Schools are a big driver for company relocations, DiBella said. Nassau County doesn’t just have A-rated schools. It has the second-highest graduation rate in Florida.
The area has excellent transportation assets. And Rayonier’s work securing certifications for its industrial properties will shorten a manufacturer’s time-to-market following a purchase.
When Nassau County’s economic development job opened up, DiBella took no time deciding the person who filled it should be her.
“I’ve been watching this come together for a long time,” DiBella said. “Nassau has the right plan at the right time.”
DiBella stands at the center of it.
• Ran in the Boston Marathon.
• Initially got her real estate license to help friends buy houses.
• Co-founder and former CEO of a South Florida marketing and staffing firm.