There are many stakeholders that work together to drive economic growth and community development in Suwannee County, Florida. One of them is the Suwannee County Economic Development Office, an organization that is doing all it can to ensure the natural endowments of the area are leveraged and protected to reinforce quality of life and foster prosperity for all.
Location, location, location
As a rural county, location is one of Suwannee County’s greatest assets, both from an economic and a quality of life perspective, and that is supported by an expansive and ever-growing infrastructure, as can be witnessed when looking at the various developments taking place county-wide.
Logistical connectivity is Suwannee County’s strength. It enjoys access to Interstate 75 which runs north and south through the county, and Interstate 10, which runs east and west through Jacksonville and Tallahassee, between which Suwannee County is ideally located. The county also benefits from connectivity to Highways 90, 129 and 136.
Further to highway and interstate access, Suwannee County benefits from multimodal connectivity thanks to proximity to the Port of Jacksonville, countless airports in the region, and railway access, which support the various economic sectors that are presently driving growth in the county.
The county has identified five sites, called employment centers, to encourage land use categories that better reflect this targeted growth from the industrial, manufacturing, distribution, warehousing, commercial and retail sectors. This includes having all zoning, planning and infrastructure in place to be able to take full advantage of growth opportunities as they arise.
Just last year, Suwannee County received a job growth grant from the State of Florida, which supported investment in a wastewater treatment plant and a water plant at the County Road 136 and Interstate 75 interchange, an area that is currently under development and one of the five employment centers.
Jimmy Norris, Economic Development Director of the Suwannee County Economic Development Office, discussed some of the various locations that are being primed for growth in Suwannee County and why these are significant.
One of the most impressive sites that have been identified in Suwannee County is certainly the Catalyst Site, which is located at the interchange of US 90 and Interstate 10. One of the few sites in the State of Florida that allows for any kind of industrial activity, just six months ago a rail spur was completed, making it an even more ideal location for industry,and a major investment and asset for the county.
Some of Suwannee County’s largest employers are located at the Catalyst Site, including Klausner Lumber One and Matco Industries, the world’s largest sawmill by output and a digitally advanced, environmentally clean operation and transloading and railroad logistics provider, respectively.
“It’s not just these large companies that we’re trying to recruit,” explained Norris. “It’s very important that our local businesses are considered. The majority of our growth will come from local business and will come from those that are already here, whether it’s expansion or taking on another division within an existing company.” Norris understands the needs of local business well, having been a general contractor in the area prior to his move into economic development.
The main interchange near the city of Live Oak, where US Highway 129 and Interstate 10 meet, is where the bulk of the growth and development in Suwannee County is taking place. This also happens to be where the internationally popular Busy Bee travel plaza is located, which draws thousands of visitors each year and is a major community support, offering sponsorship for community events like Christmas in the Square, which brings together hundreds of vendors and around 20,000 attendees.
At the US 129/I-10 interchange, a Publix Superstore has broken ground, a John Deere dealership is under construction, retail and restaurants are popping up, and all this growth has necessitated an investment in a new fire station to support the area. Norris anticipates that in the next year, several properties will be under construction, the most the county has ever seen, and this trend is likely to last for upwards of twenty years.
Not only is Suwannee County proximate to infrastructure, it has access to nature and recreational opportunities, and as such, agriculture and tourism are two economic forces in the region that continue to flourish thanks to its natural endowments.
Agriculture constitutes 22 percent of the county’s economic makeup. Pilgrim’s Pride, a poultry processor, is the county’s largest employer, with 1,600 employees and a supply chain that includes many area farmers. Other opportunities could arise with the passage of the Farm Bill, as the region boasts available land that is ideal for agriculture and agribusiness such as hemp production.
Having land that is well suited for agricultural production also translates into an asset for tourism and ecotourism, which is a growing sector in Suwannee County. The area is recognized for its first magnitude springs; Suwannee County is in the heart of spring country and has one of the longest underwater cave systems in the continental United States. It boasts an impressive network of trails and a sportsplex that attracts local and visiting athletes to the community.
The First Federal Sportsplex is a great community feature that supports tourism and the exceptional quality of life enjoyed by Suwannee County residents. Complete with ball fields, tennis courts, new turf and a new event pavilion, there are plans to grow the facility’s impact, as an additional seventy acres have been acquired for complex expansion.
Suwannee County is also home to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park and Campground which sees over 600,000 visitors each year. Though it seems there are enough natural draws to the county, the efforts of stakeholders in the region are paying off. For a rural county, there are countless draws that are equal to those in metropolitan centers.
Smart and sustainable development
For its efforts to promote the region, the Suwannee County Tourist Development Council received a Flagler Award from Visit Florida for Outstanding Marketing for its efforts to position the region as a locale to visit and enjoy, and with countless stakeholders working together to advance the county, more is yet to come!
All the development that is taking place is influencing investment in retail and food and beverage opportunities which will only further support tourism and quality of life in the county – and Suwannee County is well positioned to make the most of these opportunities. It is also important to note that because of its natural endowments, it is not about growth for growth’s sake in Suwannee County; there is a focus on sustainable development and as Norris noted, “We’re careful about what industry we bring in,” which makes solar a great fit for the county.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest in solar along the I-10 corridor,” said Norris. “Right now, a 74.5 megawatt solar facility is being built by Florida Power and Light, the Echo River Solar Facility, which we are so excited about,” in addition to a few other solar projects in the works. Sustainable growth and investment, like the promise of solar, will help preserve the quality of life that is held in such high regard by those who live in and visit the region.
Not only is the quality of life worth replicating, the cost of living in Suwannee County is only 91 percent of the national average, making the cost of living and doing business more affordable – not to mention that people say hello when they see you walking around town and shopping in the stores.
To support the economic development activity taking place, Suwannee County has also emphasized the importance of education. There has been a big push over the last several years to improve the educational outcomes of the community, and the work is paying off as 98 percent of students in the county graduate, whereas the state average is only 86 percent.
Efforts were taken to recruit North Florida College, to which Norris said, “We were able to get them to start a satellite campus here in Suwannee County and in the first semester every class offered was at maximum capacity,” with five more classes being added in the spring.
The satellite campus is making use of a historic building in the county. The old train depot has been converted into the aptly named Learning Station, where students have access to in-class and online learning. The county also enjoys proximity to Riveroak Technical College, Florida Gateway College, the University of Florida and Florida State University.
As development continues to take place in Suwannee County, officials are also focused on housing. Currently, there are two multi-family properties under development that will add several hundred units to the community.
“Live here and love it here”
There is no question that Suwannee County has a robust mix of economic and community initiatives that are driving growth; but the reason it is experiencing this degree of success is because there is complete community buy-in: everyone is committed to making Suwannee County a great place to be.
“We want people to come here and we want them to become Suwannee County: come in, buy in, live here and love it here,” said Norris, and he and his counterparts are doing everything in their power to make this a reality through growth and development.
“I want my kids to be able to stay here, my grandkids. I want to bring good, well-paying jobs to Suwannee County. I want my kids to be able to enjoy affordable housing,” said Norris, who has long called the community home.
Suwannee County is bursting with potential and has the tools and resources to make good on it: logistical connectivity and access, natural endowments, room to grow, an educated population, and most important of all, a commitment from the community to work together toward sustainable development that makes sense for them.