DeSoto awaits Nuco Citrus land deal

Nuco Citrus would process pectin at its DeSoto plant. But the land sale has yet closed.

Just days from its targeted September-October groundbreaking, Nuco Citrus LLC has yet to close on the 193 acres in east DeSoto County it wants for a plant to convert citrus peels and other juice-making leftovers into pectin.

The tardy closing has already quashed former DeSoto County economic development specialist Michael Tabor’s January prediction that the actual plant would open in October and be “ready for harvest season of 2019.”

Nuco CEO Frederick Beckett did not respond to inquiries seeking comment on wrapping up the property purchase. He was confident that the process was moving forward at a July commission hearing, however.

Realtor Mac Martin of United Country | Gulfland Real Estate said he is unsure why the transaction closing seems to be butting right up against the planned September-October groundbreaking for the $100 million-plus plant for processing pectin, a fiber found in fruits and widely used in everything from drug manufacturing to food processing.

The deal for the east DeSoto County cattle and scrub land on the south side of State Highway 72 is not in trouble, as far as he knows, Martin said. “I am confident things are going to proceed,” the Arcadia real estate broker said late last week.

Martin said the Delray Beach-based agri-tech company’s executives had plans to begin site improvement on the property in the next few weeks.

Nuco’s proposed facility is to occupy 20 acres of nearly 200 total acres.

DeSota County Administrator Mandy Hines said it’s been some time since she’s heard from Nuco, adding, “I have no idea where they are on the property closing.”

Delays on such detailed land transactions are not uncommon, however, she said.

Hines, who has worked with Beckett and Nuco on the project for three years, said she understands the company has the $150 million needed to cover the entire cost of the pectin project.

Beckett is a co-founder of Connecticut-based investment advisory firm Gramercy Hill Partners, whose specialty is streamlining business ventures in emerging and “frontier” markets, two categories that would seem to fit the pectin plant.

Nuco says it selected east DeSoto over sites in Georgia and California based on its proximity to citrus groves and juice processing plants. The site’s nearness to key transportation points influenced the decision as well, the company says.

DeSoto County commissioners, meanwhile, are working to untie any snags for the one-of-a-kind agri-tech project. It holds the promise of over 100 jobs, in addition to new sources of revenue for local citrus growers and processors. County officials have cited rank-and-file worker wages of between $20 and $25 an hour.

In addition to jobs, the pectin operation is seen as a welcome shot in the arm for an ailing agriculture sector that accounts for 25 percent of DeSoto’s economy.

Nuco is to receive annual ad valorem tax rebates totaling $1.5 million over 10 years, incentives administrator Hines emphasizes are fully performance based.

The pectin processing plant—code named “Project Yellow” in its early secretive stages—won a key concession from commissioners in late July with a unanimous vote to lower the height of a vegetated berm that will extend 65 feet and sit on a base 40 feet wide.

Saying a berm of 10 feet would require destroying at least six aces of vegetation, Nuco executives asked the county to forget the berm altogether. Commissioners, however, insisted a natural sound barrier must stay in the conditions they set in approving a special use exception for the plant.

That approval mandated a 10-foot natural berm topped by tree plantings. Nuco ended up with a mandate for a six-foot vegetative berm with tree plantings at the top to run 65 feet along the property’s boundary with County Road 661.

The plant is to go up in Commissioner Buddy Mansfield’s District 1. He said he thinks the berm was a bad idea to begin with. The plant’s process equipment will be inside a precast concrete structure. It “met noise standards” without needing to add a structure to lower sound decibels, Mansfield said in an interview.

Mansfield gave a second to District 4 Commissioner Elton Langford’s motion to remove the 10-foot berm as a special use exception requirement.

In questioning the need for a berm, Mansfield cited the absence of noise reduction structures for Peace River Citrus processing plant across State Road/Highway 72 from the proposed pectin plant site.

Neighbors have complained about noise from the Peace River Citrus plant but note its operation is limited to the citrus harvesting season.

The closest house to the plant site is about 1,200 feet away, county officials said.

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