Just 12 short months ago, public and private officials moaned loudly about the lack of commercial/industrial park space, which was limiting efforts to bring new employers and high-paying jobs to Marion County.
Today, many agree the bellyaching has been replaced by an unprecedented cooperation among city, county and private interests to develop commercial and industrial space. Days ago, the city and the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corp. showed off plans for a business park at the Ocala International Airport at the National Business Aviation Association trade show. Also in the last year, the EDC has worked with the city and county to identify potential commercial sites, the Marion County Commission passed a nonbinding resolution to partner with the city to provide infrastructure to the Magna property at I-75 and U.S. 27, and Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill allowing the city to apply for an enterprise zone for its west side.
While no one is expecting a sudden boom in commercial development, many believe Marion County has finally moved past the talk-talk-talk, stage into more of a let’s-get-things-done mode.
“We believe both the public and private sectors have responded admirably to the situation,” said EDC president/CEO Pete Tesch. “There are several business parks in the process of development. We have Ocala International Airport, the industrial property that surrounds that is now on the market. There’s development with the Magna property. There has been a lot done with those two parks and there are others waiting in the wings at various stages.”
Perhaps even more important is the newfound cooperation among the city, county and private sector.
“The EDC, city and county have pretty much been working hand-in-hand, which they tell me is surprising to some,” said Ocala city manager Rick Horst. “We have moved forward at the airport. We’re also working hand-in-hand on the Magna property. In the past, we didn’t have site-ready properties. We need 4,500 acres over the next 30 years. Between what we’re doing now, we’re trying to get to the point where we’re site ready. We’re very close at the airport. We’ll actually start putting some infrastructure in the ground starting next February.”
Bartow McDonald, managing director of Sperry Van Ness in Ocala, also has noticed the budding cooperation, which he says will have a major impact in bringing national companies to Marion County.
“There is an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination going on right now at all levels in the public and private sectors,” McDonald said. “There is a lot of good, long-term strategic planning being done to seize opportunities that will come down the pipeline in the future. We work with a lot of national companies and I’m very encouraged by what we bring to the table as a county.”
Don Upton, president of Tampa-based consulting firm Fairfield Index, which has worked with the EDC, said Marion County has made considerable progress in the last year and it’s drawing attention from people at the state level.
“Let’s use the airport site as an example,” Upton said. “You are really getting these sites into a state of readiness. We know from over a year ago, if we weren’t ready with sites we might miss an opportunity. From what I can tell, not only do you have sites that are being ready, it’s going to be for the right kinds of targets.”
Upton believes when economic conditions improve, there will be a “new conservatism” in business and Marion County will be able to take advantage because the area is a manufacturing center, has a multi-modal capacity, a high level of customer service and commercial sites available.
“Where there was competition, they leapt over it,” Upton said. “They’re better prepared than other counties.”
Upton isn’t the only one hearing rave reviews about commercial development in Marion County.
“I’m hearing more and more that EDCs and chambers all over the state are calling and saying, ‘What are you guys doing because you guys are being talked about everywhere we go,'” Horst said. “It’s pretty amazing what we can do when we work together.”
Horst said one thing being talked about is the development of an enterprise zone. At this point, the formal application is almost complete and should be submitted to the state for review. Horst isn’t anticipating any problems moving forward.
“We’ve identified the areas,” Horst said. “We’ve been very successful in finding consensus in the community, what the areas should be comprised of. Now we’ll submit that and there’s a due process we’ll go through, but we don’t anticipate being denied.”
Horst said there’s already been some interest, mostly from property owners in the proposed enterprise zone.
“We’ve seen interest,” Horst said. “I wouldn’t say proposals, I’d say maybe interesting discussions because we have not solicited formal proposals yet. As the economy continues to turn, we’ll be poised to be able to engage in some good conversations.”
McDonald, who markets the Ocala Business Park, said the credit crunch continues to slow efforts to find new tenants.
“We have a lot of companies with plans to grow that are hampered right now by the credit markets,” McDonald said. “At the Ocala Business Park, one of the biggest challenges for any company is the availability of credit.”
McDonald said lenders he’s talk to say the credit market is starting to ease.
“A lot of companies feel like they’re on the five-yard line ready to score a touchdown,” McDonald said. “Those last five yards in light of the current credit market are really challenging. Of late, I’ve talked to a number of lenders and it appears credit is loosening up a bit.”
McDonald recently landed a new tenant, California-based ValleyCrest Landscaping Inc., for the business park.
Rob Maier, branch manager for ValleyCrest, said they chose the site because its centralized location will help them better serve their Central Florida client base.
“It fit all of our needs to run our business,” Maier said. “It’s close to our customers and employees who would work for us. It has everything we need to run our business.”
While an improving economy will help spur commercial development, “The Great Recession” contributed to the burst of activity during the last year.
“The downturn helped,” said Dwayne Carlton, certified property manager with Ellison Property Management. “When everything was going great we still tried to make the argument for commercial development, but it wasn’t as important. Once we got to the situation we are now, everybody’s paying a lot more attention, taking it more seriously.”
Carlton, who is also the EDC’s vice chair of properties, said the economy brought development to the forefront because “we needed jobs.”
“We’ve got to have the dirt to get the jobs on so when we have a project come to Ocala we’ve got to have a place to put them,” Carlton said.
Tesch agrees the economy played a big role in the current commercial development push and Marion County is in a much better position today to entice employers than it was a year ago.
“We have two things we can provide,” Tesch said. “A very deep, rich labor pool and we have a very vast inventory of property and buildings. Now that there is some improvement in the economy there has been a significant increase in prospect activity with all types of businesses and industry sectors starting to stick their heads above the ground and look around. We’re in a lot better shape than what we had a year ago.”
Though most agree there’s been significant progress in the last year, it’s not unanimous. Gus Galloway, a commercial Realtor and president of Gus Galloway Realty, says the commercial market isn’t all peaches-and-cream as some would have you believe.
“We have more vacancies in the industrial market properties than I’ve seen in 35 years of being in the real estate business,” Galloway said. “I would estimate somewhere between 30 and 40 percent vacant industrial buildings in Marion County.”
Galloway also believes efforts to develop large commercial parks are misguided.
“I think they’re [EDC] so far out in left field it’s pretty hard for me to describe,” Galloway said. “I don’t think there’s any common sense going on down there. We missed two super opportunities with Wal-Mart and Sysco in the last five years. The space was there, nobody wanted to make the zoning changes to do that. They’re talking about a 400-acre tract of land north of town (Magna) and right now there’s no movement in industrial real estate. The absorption time and holding costs on projects of that nature take away any profit in developing sites like that.”
Galloway said the city has controlled the airport site “forever” and nothing has happened there.
“The city makes horrific decisions on their investments. Look at the downtown mess,” Galloway said. “If the city goes out and obligates tax dollars and incentive dollars on land that right now there’s no demand for, I think it’s folly. Has anything happened at the airport? The answer is no. They’re totally in charge of it. They can sell it, lease it, do whatever they want to do and they can’t make anything happen. The reason they can’t is because there’s nothing happening to make happen. The market is flat.”
Horst said there is a dichotomy when it comes to commercial development.
“We do have the dichotomy that we do have some empty buildings within the current infrastructure we want to try and fill up, too,” Horst said. “Our real intent is when those guys want 500,000 to 1.2 million square feet, we’d be able to supply those.”
In the meantime, Tesch said, development efforts must keep moving forward.
“In the next six to 12 months we’re going to see property coming out of the ground,” Tesch said. “There’s also going to be opportunity with other expanding industries. The stars are aligning. It would be very advantageous if we had a new or expanding business say yes, we’re going into whatever industrial park and build or expand a facility.”
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