AVON PARK — The Highlands County Economic Development Council and Duke Energy teamed up to present a site readiness plan on land that could potentially attract industrial or manufacturing businesses to the county Thursday afternoon at the South Florida State College auditorium.

The properties in question are owned by Ben Hill Griffin Inc., Baxter Troutman and C. Elton Crews Family Ltd. Partnership. Together, the properties total 123 acres directly south of the Nucor steel company in the north end of the company.

HCE Business Director Meghan DiGiacomo welcomed the 60 or so attendees in the audience Thursday and introduced Duke Energy’s Marc Hoenstine. Hoenstine briefly explained Duke helps the communities they serve by choosing sites that look good for industrial businesses to invest in.

That is the reason this site was chosen by Duke Energy with the help of Global Location Strategies, who had representatives at the meeting to share a wealth of knowledge. Civil Group Leader Nicole Lynn, with the engineering group Ardurra, gave a slide presentation on what a large plant might look like on the future site. She talked about buffers for neighbors and staying away from the lake at the north end of the property.

Didi Caldwell, with GLS, said her company used 850 data points to help determine the readiness of the site. It is a very promising site but it’s not perfect yet and there are a few things that the county should be preparing the properties for and its residents, she said. One of her suggestions was to retrain employees and grow employees from K-12.

“If you don’t build it, they won’t come,” Caldwell said, borrowing a line from the “Field of Dreams.”

Tess Fay, with GLS, gave some statistics on the property and how it would look to a potential client if they used a “desktop evaluation.”

Of the 123 acres, 71 are contiguous. One plus for the property is the location next to the CSX railway and its location near U.S. 27. Fay said being near eight deep-water ports in Tampa was a plus but the site’s distance from the interstate was a concern.

Fay said one item that could risk the property being eliminated is the zoning. Some of the property is zoned industrial while others are zoned residential and agricultural. She recommended rezoning all the properties to industrial so would be one less thing investors would have to do.

Fay said the parcel size being too large or too small could be an issue depending on the company that wants to go in. She mentioned the threat of the unknown, which she said is doing due diligence studies that have not been done yet, such as wetlands, endangered species, etc.

Fay recommended doing the studies when possible to save incoming companies time and money when they are considering purchasing land.

Some of the industries that might be a good fit for the area were cement, general distribution, and food and beverage industries. Companies that supply Nucor with products were also mentioned. Many would have to have CDL truckers and the county should prepare its residents accordingly. SFSC does have a CDL program.

Fay said a drawback of the food and beverage industry is there is often a smell associated with them.

Questions from the audience included concerns that a company coming in might pollute the environment. An audience member cited past Environmental Protection Agency sins from a different location, many years ago.

DiGiacomo assured the audience that the EPA would be working closely with the county and any business that was to purchase the land. Another person wanted to be sure there was going to be noise and sight pollution protections in place.

Enterprise Florida President and CEO Jamal Sowell was in attendance and represented Florida’s Official Economic Development Organization. He said DiGiacomo and Duke Energy were doing a fantastic job.

Sowell said Enterprise Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis support the site readiness program.

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