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 new executive director of Nassau County’s Economic Development Board, who is intelligent and personable.
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.
DiBella took over her new post at the helm of the nonprofit group Oct. 1.
Economic development organizations don’t own land or run a business. They serve as a marketing arm for industries that do. In this respect, Di Bella’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.
Like St. Johns County about an hour to the south, 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 elephant in the room.
Owning 130,000 acres, if there’s a land deal in Nassau, nine out of 10 times Rayonier is behind it.
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.
To the west of the project lies Rayonier’s other for-sale parcel, Crawford Diamond.
Less publicized, it courts a very 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’s diamond isn’t just two rail lines, but two lines owned by different railroad companies, CSX and Norfolk Southern.
Learning to deal
A graduate of the University of Florida, DiBella’s work 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 still in college. She came home to the family business to help fill his shoes. DiBella’s father, also 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 units in an apartment complex that had been converted to condos. The downturn was just beginning and sales 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.”
By 2009 she was in Jacksonville working for Florida Medical Space, performing site selections for hospitals, free-standing emergency rooms and general practice and specialists’ offices – everything, big and small. She did deals in Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties.
Today, she knows her neighboring counties advantages, their weaknesses, and how to sell against them.
Nassau doesn’t just have A-rated schools. It has one of the highest graduations rate in Florida. It also has excellent transportation assets.
And Nassau has Rayonier’s land, entitled and ready for development.
“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.