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Columbia County Econ Dev:  Niagara Gets Thumbs Down – County Could Lose 150 Potential Jobs

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Last Tuesday, Columbia County's Economic Development Advisory Board, after only 11 minutes and six seconds of discussion about the Niagara Bottling Project, moved to "not to enter into a contract with the company." The decision by the EDAB is advisory only.

Background: Columbia County Economic Development

For decades, Columbia County, centrally located at the intersection of I-75 and I-10, would have been a natural for economic development. It wasn't.

Commissioner Ronald Williams in his traditional cowboy garb speaks in favor of the project at the EDAB meeting.
Commissioner Ronald Williams in his traditional cowboy garb speaks in favor of the project at the EDAB meeting.

Thirty-eight-year veteran commissioner, Ronald Williams, said "bickering" was the cause of lost opportunities.

It wasn't. Over the years, the problems were much deeper, running from keeping cheap labor in the fields to keep higher-paying jobs out of the County, to a lack of vision by Columbia County in 2008, which blew up the opportunity to consolidate the Lake City Utility into a County-wide utility.

In 2012, the County's reconstituted Economic Development Committee had been talking for a year. It was still trying to figure out what it was supposed to do.

When the then newly hired County Economic Development Director Jesse Quillen formulated a mission statement which had the County looking to attract "higher-skill, higher-wage jobs," Commissioner Williams nixed, and the rest of the board nixed the quest for "higher-skill, higher-wage jobs." See: County Economic Development Committee deep sixes "higher-skill, higher-wage jobs" from its mission statement

Many of those board members are still on the board.

When it comes to the North Florida Mega Industrial Park, formerly Hurricane Bay, the Inland-Port, the Port of the Saggy-Bra, the Intermodal, Plum Creek, and now owned by Weyerhaeuser in its latest incarnation, one thing is clear: the mega-billion dollar company doesn't want to spend its own money on developing the utility infrastructure and the roads at the site, which is private property.

See: Columbia County Economic Development Weyerhaeuser-Plum Creek Mega Industrial Site: 14 Years Later – Still No Utility Plan

Niagara Looking for a Commitment

EDAB Chairman Tim Murphy (right) discusses City-County utility issues and Interim County Manager David Kraus looks on.
EDAB Chairman Tim Murphy (right) discusses City-County utility issues and Interim County Manager David Kraus looks on.

On December 16, representatives of Niagara meet with the County and almost the City. City Manager Joe Helfenberger was out of town and did not designate anyone to sit in for him. County Manager David Kraus and Economic Development Director Glenn Hunter attended the meeting with the attorneys from both the City and County. Assistant County Manager Kevin Kirby also attended.

Economic Development Advisory Board Chairman, Commissioner Tim Murphy, was muscled out of the meeting by Commissioner Williams, who got there first.

Neither Commissioner mentioned this during the Economic Development Advisory Board meeting.

It was widely known to County insiders that Commissioner Williams favored the Niagara project, and Commissioner Murphy is opposed.

On December 17, Commissioner Murphy called a special meeting of the Economic Development Advisory Board. The purpose: "To discuss issues relating to a potential economic development agreement for Project Belle [Niagara], terms and conditions of such an agreement, and make recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners, if any."

Economic Development Advisory Board: the meeting

Before the meeting, the word was all over the street that Commissioner Murphy called the meeting to score political points.

EDAB meetings are generally thinly attended. Over time, the EDAB board has become a paper tiger, with membership not much more than a resume builder.

With the word on the street about this meeting, the County's brass showed up in force. Some of these folks are not worried about the pandemic. Back row left to right: Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth, City Councilman Todd Sampson, County Clerk, Jay Swisher. Front row: County Engineer Chad Williams, County Chairman Rocky Ford.

Last Tuesday's meeting was attended by a who's who in Columbia County: County Clerk Jay Swisher, County Engineer Chad Williams, Interim County Manager David Kraus, Assistant County Manager Kevin Kirby, Community Activist Sylvester Warren, County Commissioners Ronald Williams, Robbie Hollingsworth, and Rocky Ford, Assistant City Manager Daniel Sweat, City Councilman Todd Sampson, and Our Santa Fe River's Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson and Kristin Rubin.

County-wide water issues were vigorously discussed.

City Manager Joe Helfenberger takes notes.
City Manager Joe Helfenberger takes notes.

City Manager Joe Helfenberger, after over two years on the job, claimed to be still clueless about why the Suwannee River Water Management District had cut down the City's ability to pump water.

Mr. Helfenberger said the Water Management District, "Never gave a formal answer. All they gave us was a new permit, so we have a freedom of information request into them for about six different requests for information on this very issue."

The City's new Assistant City Manager, who has no experience with Water and Wastewater, also didn't have any answers during the meeting.

Mr. Helfenberger also mentioned that the Company [Niagara] asked for liquidated damages if the City-County didn't deliver on their promises.

A copy of Niagara's letter to City Attorney Koberlein and County Attorney Foreman did not mention "liquidated damages" as a requirement in a proposed development agreement.

While this was a matter of discussion in earlier meetings, this didn't come up on the December meeting between what was a meeting between the Company's attorneys and the City and County attorneys.

The EDAB meeting went on for an hour and thirty-five minutes before Chairman Murphy brought up Niagara's terms.

There was nothing for the EDAB to review, even though the meeting with Niagara was the week before.

EDAB:  11 minutes dedicated to the project

County Attorney Joel Foreman read the proposed development agreement conditions from his cell phone.

Niagara, after about ten months of going nowhere, was playing hardball. The Company wanted an agreement by January 15.

Chairman Murphy made a brief comment in which he concluded this wasn't enough time, and he didn't know when the City met next.

Mr. Murphy asked, "Do we have a recommendation from the committee?"

There was silence.

Mr. Murphy said he couldn't support it at the committee, and wouldn't support it when it comes before the County 5.

There was still silence.

Finally, County Attorney Foreman mentioned, "The function of the EDAB is to make recommendations."

Charlie Keith, Suwannee River Water Management Board member.
Charlie Keith, a member of the Suwannee River Water Management Board.

Mr. Foreman did not mention that the Board did not have to make a recommendation due to a lack of supporting material, which he could have easily produced in the week before the meeting.

Suwannee River Water Management District Board member Charlie Keith is also a member of the County's Economic Development Advisory Board.

Mr. Keith recommended the County does not enter into a contract with the Company, and that the County continue to pursue its own water use permit.


Without agreed upon reasons, the Advisory Board unanimously turned down the project.

Now it's up to the infamous Columbia County 5.

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