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What's on the horizon for Cecil?

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on November 28, 2005.

When Ron Barton was weighing the offer to become executive director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, one aspect of the city's plans for development helped seal the deal: the future represented by Cecil Commerce Center.

"I couldn't have thought of a greater asset to have control of," said Barton, who in his new role will be responsible for marketing and developing the site.

In St. Petersburg, where Barton was a partner with consulting firm KPMG, the city is just about out of industrial land: Having thousands of acres to work with, he said, opens up whole new vistas.

"Long term," he said, "it's incredible to have such a great asset to the community."

That sense of excitement about the huge former U.S. Navy air base on the Westside will come in handy as the city tries to figure out what to do with the site on the border of Clay and Duval counties. Since the Navy handed over the 17,224-acre site in 1999, the Jacksonville Airport Authority has managed to get tenants for all of the hangars it is responsible for, but the city's side of the commerce center has languished, with Jacksonville swinging and missing on several big deals and appearing to struggle with how it should market the property.

The most recent high-profile deal to fall through was the offer of the land to the Navy, which had talked about relocating the master jet base now in Virginia to the site. Mayor John Peyton, who had offered the land to the military during the Base Realignment and Closure Commission process, pulled the plug on that possibility after facing opposition from residents who live nearby.

Now, those involved in luring businesses to the site say they have a chance to relaunch development of Cecil, building upon the publicity the base received during the flirtation with the Navy as well as offering potential tenants a site with a more fully developed infrastructure, which was being upgraded during the past six years.

"We were in a transition, anyway, through the spring of this year," Barton said. "The discussion that we went through this summer with the Navy returning -- in my mind that was not really detrimental to our efforts.

"It was a natural transition period. Now we're in a full-court marketing process."

HIRING A DEVELOPER FELL THROUGH

The city has tried various approaches to marketing its 8,312-acre section of the park, including courting massive projects such as a DaimlerChrysler van plant that in 2002 opted to go to Savannah, Ga., (before later scrapping the entire idea), a Boeing Co. jet factory that went to Everett, Wash., in 2003 and an airplane assembly plant operation that Arlington, Va.-based EADS North America decided to build in Mobile, Ala., earlier this year.

In 2002, Jacksonville hired TriLegacy Commerce Group LLC as a master developer, responsible for refurbishing the infrastructure, advertising the center and finding tenants. Over a 25-year period, the company said, developing Cecil would create more than 16,000 jobs and generate $857.5 million in private investment.

Less than two years later, the company was fired for filing paperwork late, during the same time it was tussling with the mayor's office over how it had handled city money it was given while it was building The Shipyards, a large residential-commercial complex downtown.

For the past 20 months, though, the only people marketing the site was the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, which has been going through its own upheaval. Most recently, Andy Eckert, who had been in charge of Cecil development, left the city for consulting firm Arcadis.

With that history behind the site, Barton said last week that he's "not convinced that picking a master developer is the best course."

Instead, he said, JEDC would serve as the owner's representative -- "The taxpayer is actually the owner," he said -- and focus on connecting with real estate brokers and site selection consultants who could get the word out about Cecil.

"I think you have an option to the master developer approach," he said. "That option is to empower the national real estate brokerage and site selection people to be an adjunct of your marketing strategy. Their tentacles are everywhere. They're out beating the bushes everyday."

Partnering with an outside real estate company could be beneficial, said Michael Randle, editor and publisher of Southern Business & Development, a magazine focusing on economic development in the South, although such an approach could be more expensive than having a good in-house sales force.

If the city is looking for outside expertise anyway, he advised, go a step further and actually get commercial developers involved in building up the site.

"I'm really surprised some commercial real estate company hasn't approached them with a spec building," Randle said. "If they have no debt, [the city] can give the land away."

Getting a developer involved at Cecil would help attract more businesses as well as make the site more attractive to current tenants, said Phil Voss, vice president of LSI, the largest employer at the former air base.

"They need to get it out of political hands," said Voss, referring to the JEDC, adding that having to go through a complicated leasing process dampens interest in the city's part of the park. LSI's facility is under the Airport Authority's control.

"If I want a lease on airport property, it goes to the board and gets turned around in a month," said Voss, who said LSI moved into its 100,000 square foot building on the airport side of the center because of the cheap rent. "If I go to the city, I have to go through an entire legal procedure: The planners have to approve it, City Council has to approve. It's very frustrating."

A lack of amenities such as restaurants in the area also makes Cecil less appealing, Voss said. "It's very frustrating to us when we keep moving employees out there and they have to drive 30 miles to eat somewhere," he said, explaining that the only restaurant in the vicinity has shut down. "They don't do employee-friendly things. A developer would know to do these things.

"They need to get it out of political hands. Even if that means [the Airport Authority], they should turn it over to them."

JAA TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

The airport side of the development is generally considered a success, with Jacksonville Airport Authority officials saying they're ahead of their plan. All of the hangars at the site, which boosts one of the longest runways in the country, have been rented, and the authority is considering building more facilities.

Meanwhile, federal grants have paid for a host of infrastructure improvements, such as repairing runway lights and installing a new fire suppression system, all necessary to meet requirements set by everyone from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"The first step was to get the airport operational," said Bob Simpson, director of general aviation, which includes oversight of Cecil Field, the airport at Cecil Commerce Center. Simpson shepherded the transfer of Cecil from the military to the city before joining the Airport Authority. "If I had all the money in the world, it would have been a snap [to build more], but we used the money early on to get the air field in good shape."

With those projects on the verge of completion, the Airport Authority is now looking at expanding to the east side of the north-south runway, bringing in tenants who would build hangars and perhaps constructing aprons -- where airplanes park -- and taxiways on spec.

"We have to figure out what's the best way to use the money we have available," Simpson said.

The Airport Authority is also waiting to find out what's going to happen with Embraer, a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer that was to be a key tenant at the park. The company was to assemble jets for the U.S. Army's new surveillance program at a facility at Cecil: Now, however, it appears likely that it might lose the job after the military determined the jet that was to be used couldn't handle the weight of the spy equipment.

Embraer has long said that it remains committed to Jacksonville no matter what happens with the spy plane job, and authority officials said they haven't had any word that Embraer is pulling out of the park.

An aviation focus will remain a hallmark of Cecil development, said Barton, who said the site has to utilize the success on the air side. "One thing that's unique about Cecil Field is the aviation component," he said. "I think we're going to be successful building off of that industry cluster."

Players in the aviation industry know about the site, Barton said. "We're on the map on the aviation side," he said. "We need to turn the corner on the non-aviation side."

RESULTS WITHIN 6 MONTHS?

As it attempts to do that, Barton said, the JEDC will widen its focus a bit, looking for more than just the megaprojects such as the DaimlerChrysler plant that have been perused in the past.

"We're always going to be on the lookout for those opportunities," he said, "but that's not where we're going to be putting a lot of our energy."

Such massive projects generate much more competition, and require much more in the way of incentives. "Your payday is not as immediate," he said.

Such a wider approach can make sense, said Neal Wade, director of the Alabama Development Office, which helped Mobile win a jet assembly plant that Florida has hoped might come to Cecil.

"It's real important to decide what you want to do with the site," said Wade, who used to be vice president for economic development at the St. Joe Company. "There's arguments on either side. There's not one right way. But you have to pick out what you want to do and plan it out and work your plan."

The former military base in Mobile was reserved for a large project because of the combination of its runway, its access to a nearby port and the size of the workforce in the area.

"We had targeted a large project," Wade said. "We realized the value of the site. There's just not that many sites like ours. We knew at some point that we'd attract someone."

If Cecil were his site, said Randle, the Southern Business & Development publisher, he would hold out for something like a pharmaceutical plant or the "Holy Grail" of an auto manufacturer.

"You can't say this is a failure after six years," he said. "There have been sites sitting there for 20 years, not six."

Still, smaller players might already be looking at the site: When JB Renninger, director of FCCJ's aviation center of excellence, which is at Cecil, has had aviation company in town recruiting students, some of them make a point of taking a look at Cecil, he said.

"There's opportunities out there if we want to go after them," he said. "I don't know what type of success we'd have, but we have to make an overture."

Such overtures are being made, said Barton, who is building on the excitement about Cecil that brought him to Jacksonville by working on a marketing strategy for the site.

A plan should be ready for the mayor's review by the beginning of 2006, he said, and the JEDC is already courting prospects, he said, some of which might be close to bearing fruit.

"I'd like to think that within six months we're going to be able to announce a couple of wins," he said. "They could be generating jobs and income in two years."

No matter how long it takes for a business to decide that Cecil is the place to be, companies will be coming, Barton said.

"We have too valuable an asset," he said. "Now we have to get out there and get aggressive in promoting it."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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