Gadsden County, located in Northwest Florida, is part of the Tallahassee metro area and offers many opportunities for companies looking to do business in the southeastern US. The Gadsden County Development Council (GCDC) is committed to leveraging the county’s strategic assets to strengthen the local economy. Executive Director Beth Kirkland spoke with us about the assets and initiatives that make Gadsden County an ideal location for doing business.
Gadsden County, Florida, is comprised of six municipalities with a combined population of 46,823 people. Gadsden County provides easy access to all the amenities of the south Georgia – north Florida region providing a workforce of 265,709 people in the 50 mile radius. With a vibrant arts community and an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities featuring many lakes, rivers, and state parks, the county offers endless opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. “Gadsden is that outdoor playground, with the lakes, the watersports, the fishing and hunting, all the things that people so enjoy,” said Beth Kirkland of the Gadsden County Development Council. “People here have the balance of lifestyle they’re looking for.”
Designated as a Rural Area of Opportunity by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Gadsden is a member of Opportunity Florida, a nine county regional economic development alliance in northwest Florida. This designation allows the development council to seek infrastructure funding necessary to facilitate capital investment and job creation. A recent award of $387,575 from the state will build a road and extend utilities to the greenfield site of a $2.1 million build-to-suit project expected to create 31 direct jobs.
The county is experiencing economic growth in a variety of sectors including manufacturing, distribution, transportation, retail and senior living. Led by Lee Garner, Chairman, the Gadsden County Development Council focuses on three drivers of economic growth and development: identifying and positioning commercial and industrial sites proximate to transportation assets (interstate, rail, air and sea ports), using the sector strategy approach to workforce development, and developing local policies that support small businesses and induce game-changing business expansion and attraction.
Gadsden County’s strategic location and numerous transportation assets make it an ideal location for companies with a regional footprint. The location has attracted a number of companies to establish distribution facilities in Gadsden County, including SafeLite AutoGlass, Kauffman Tire, and Rental, Inc., a Bobcat and Doosan construction equipment distributor.
Conveniently located near multiple major highways, the County is easily accessible for both trucking and commuting. Interstate-10 stretches the entire length of the county and carries more than 14,000 vehicles daily. Interstates 65, 75, and 85 are also located nearby, offering transportation throughout the region and to major markets throughout the eastern United States.
The deepwater Port of Jacksonville (JAXPORT), located just three hours from Gadsden County, is a full-service port that offers service from numerous ocean carriers. Also located nearby is the Port of Panama City on the Intracoastal Waterway. Tallahassee International Airport is located within 30 minutes of Gadsden County and offers cargo services through multiple providers.
Three rail lines serve the county, including two Class 1 rail lines operated by CSX and a Genesee & Wyoming shortline to the Port of Port St. Joe where the Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico. These lines also connect the Port of Jacksonville to the west coast, provide service throughout the eastern states, and link four shipping terminals along Florida’s Atlantic coast.
The Gadsden County Development Council strives to maximize these transportation assets. The county is one of only four that have been awarded a grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to write regional plan for the area’s transportation assets. “The outcome is not only better strategic planning for all of us, including identification of industrial sites, and desktop analysis of those sites from both an engineering and an environmental standpoint… but also, the plan then gives our four counties priority in the state Department of Transportation plan and funding process,” Kirkland explained.
“One of the ways we’re organizing those transportation assets is through a regional freight logistics zone, which is working with the counties along the Apalachicola Northern Rail Line from the port to Gadsden County to write a strategic plan on how we would identify the future industrial developable sites… so that all of the transportation infrastructure is brought to bear from the port, sites along the rail, and inland at I-10 to transfer from rail to truck.”
The Gadsden County Development Council also works to identify and prepare sites for future development through the Strategic Sites Initiative, a new approach to developing and marketing industrial sites as a product for sale. “We have a good understanding of all of our infrastructure, where it is and where it needs to go in order to service these next generation sites,” Kirkland noted. One of the many incentives for business development in the area is the availability of state grants to fund the extension of public infrastructure to ready sites. Locally, the Board of County Commissioners adopted a grant policy that returns a portion of new revenues generated by a project to the company over a four to seven year period.
Gadsden County has received special funding through a grant from the Duke Energy Foundation to identify potential industrial sites. “Out of the research that was done at the state level, Gadsden County had the most opportunity sites,” Kirkland shared. The county has identified 20 sites ranging from 200 to 1500 acres that fit the model criteria for industrial use. The GCDC has also received an additional grant to further assess three sites accessible by rail as well as three interstate interchange sites.
The GCDC has partnered with the Baton Rouge-based firm Leotta Location + Design to evaluate property for potential industrial development. Privately held property can be optioned to the GCDC, while landowners continue to use the land for its current agricultural purposes. Kirkland explained the importance of cooperative relationships with land owners: “As economic developers, we can be confident in our marketing of that property as well as the price per acre… It allows us to go ahead and get the due diligence done on the property.”
The Council also supports the development of the county’s labor force. With a workforce that includes workers from surrounding counties in Florida and southern Georgia, regional collaboration is essential to serving the needs of the county’s employers. Gadsden County’s workforce board, CareerSource Capital Region, partners with the South Georgia Workforce Board, Southwest Georgia Workforce Board, and CareerSource North Florida on talent development, sponsoring a task force to serve businesses in the area. “It makes sense, from an economic development standpoint, to work together as a team as far as talent training and talent acquisition for all of the employers in the area and employers who may be looking at the area,” Kirkland explained.
CareerSource Capital Region is focused on evaluating the needs of local businesses and providing training and career placement services to meet those needs. A new sector strategy approach to workforce development, emphasizing the alignment of education and training offerings with economic development in the county’s targeted sectors, presents many opportunities to engage businesses in developing a strong regional workforce.
The GCDC recently completed the Competitive Florida Partnership program sponsored by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, building relationships with each of the state agencies that impact economic development. Through this program, the county’s leadership developed a strategic plan to strengthen the local economy by mapping the county’s competitive assets and defining its targeted sectors. The plan highlights three areas of opportunity:
Coordinated community development
As communities in the county grow, the GCDC works to coordinate the planning of new developments. Several towns in the county have participated in the Florida Main Street Program, revitalizing downtown areas through funding from the Florida Department of State; other communities are redeveloping historical landmarks and preparing for entertainment districts.
Coordinated business development
The GCDC is committed to the retention, expansion, and attraction of business within the county. Kirkland shared that the Council’s approach centers on asking, “How can we better align at the municipal level?” By identifying ways to align land use, development planning, and rules and regulations throughout the county, the GCDC strives to make the county attractive to businesses seeking to relocate or expand into the area.
The GCDC works to strengthen the local economy by expanding tourism to the county’s outdoor resources, including lakes, trails, hunting areas, competitive cycling and historical sites. In support of the county’s tourism programs, the Council has launched the www.DoSomethingOriginal.com website and the Discover Gadsden smartphone app to promote tourism in the area.
Looking to the future, the Gadsden County Development Council anticipates continued economic growth throughout the county and the region. The county’s many available industrial sites, strategic location and transportation assets, and skilled labor force offer many exciting opportunities for companies looking to do business in the area.