Companies investing in local economic growth

Palatka Daily News

By Wayne Smith on Saturday, December 7, 2019

A couple of years after being referred to as a dying community, economic investments in Putnam County tell a much different story. On the heels of entering a new decade, six companies operating in Putnam County have poured more than $1.8 billion into the local economy since 2017, according to data supplied by the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce. The investment total includes ongoing projects at major employers and investments since 2017.Of that $1.8 billion investment, Seminole Electric leads the way with$750 million poured into the county toward its operations and new natural gas-fired plant just north of Palatka. Georgia-Pacific – the area’s largest private employer – has invested $620million at its Palatka paper mill, including a project bringing the latest in paper machine technology to the plant. Seminole and GP considered other locations for their latest projects before deciding to make additional investments in Putnam County.

Ben Bates is a local business leader who helped form 1 Putnam, a group driving revitalization in Palatka and Putnam County. He said, “I think Seminole and GP are the most important because it ensures both companies will be in Putnam County for a number of years going forward. “Both have such an economic impact with jobs created and the taxes they pay. It’s a win-win for us.” Other investments adding to the $1.8 billion include $390 million from Florida Power & Light for three solar panel facilities in Putnam County. Continental Building Projects, a drywall and wallboard supplier in Palatka, has invested $53 million into the area economy. Meanwhile, Comarco Products is spending another $12 million as the eggplant manufacturing facility prepares to move its headquarters from New Jersey to the Putnam County Business and Aviation Park. Seeing numbers that include the word billion is encouraging to Putnam County officials and business leaders when looking to the future. “I think our best days are in front of us,” Bates said. “My feeling is if the entire county comes together and realizes what we can do to make our community better, we can do whatever we desire. “Today, the spirit is so much more positive even than it was a year ago. There’s more optimism and less pessimism. People said we didn’t have this or that and that we were dying. Now, people see better days in front of us.”

It’s Brian Bergen’s job to ensure economic growth continues. Bergen is the vice president of economic development for the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, he came to Palatka from the Midwest four years ago. He knew about the Washington Post story calling Palatka a “dying city” in a headline. Today, that perception is different. “I do think that has changed,” Bergen said. “You’d have to be blind to not see all the great things happening in our community.” Along with the capital investment, growth has also meant more jobs. Georgia-Pacific’s paper machine project contributed to more than 100 new full–time positions at the mill. Comarco, which is expected to begin production in Palatka next spring, is projected to create 120 jobs. With every primary job created comes secondary jobs from service industries. The chamber said 605 secondary jobs produce an estimated$13.3 million in annual wages. Construction jobs created through projects also boost the area’s economy. GP officials said work on the new paper machine project is at its peak, with about 600 contractor workers on site with estimated wages of $12.7 million. Seminole said earlier this year construction jobs for its project would peak at about 500. FPL’s projects account for about 200 construction jobs per site. The job growth is a significant reversal of fortune for the county.

When it was referred to as a dying city, retailers such as JCPenney and Kmart had left. At the same time, the school district’s graduation rate was declining, the hospital was struggling and infrastructure improvements were needed.Those things have changed or are a work in progress. Putnam remains one of Florida’s poorest counties, but economic growth numbers signal a positive change, business leaders say. “These are facts, numbers readily available to everyone,” Bergen said of the investment total. “All my career has been in rural economic development. I’ve never in my career seen this much in investment and job growth in a rural community. “You total up those project numbers and it adds up to about $1.8 billion and that’s very significant for a community our size.” Retaining existing employers is as important as recruiting new industry, Bergen said. That’s why continuing investments from companies like Seminole and GP are critical. “We certainly don’t want to lose a Georgia-Pacific,” Bergen said. “It impacts 11,000 people in the region. So retention is a very critical part of what we have to do. “Everything that supports that plant – from cut timber to toilet paper and paper towels, all the forestry people involved, trucking supplies that come into the plant – it would leave a very large hole.” The investment also provides tax revenue for the county.

According to the chamber, GP’s annual ad valorem taxes are estimated at $3.8 million. Mark Brown, public affairs manager for Georgia-Pacific, said the company’s new paper machine project is an indication of its commitment to Putnam County. GP has about 1,000 employees at its Palatka mill. “GP and our team here are proud to be a part of the strength of our region’s economy and to contribute to this community,” Brown said. “We continue to invest in our facility and our future, from equipment to workforce development. “The Palatka team continues to focus every day on operating safely, environmentally responsibly and competitively so that our success in Putnam County can continue for years to come.”

Seminole Electric officials said the company has been a proud partner of the Putnam County community for more than four decades. It has about 270 employees. “With the construction of our new Seminole Combined- Cycle Facility, we expect the relationship to continue for decades to come,” said Charlie Huguenard, vice president of power production. “Seminole’s facilities are very much an integral part of the community and the love and pride for this community is evident with our employees. “We are fortunate to be located in Putnam County and consider that to be a very important aspect of our operations.” With revitalization efforts underway, civic officials and business leaders agree that will spur more economic development in the county. “It’s phenomenal growth for a rural community, and even when compared to larger communities, it speaks volumes to see the high-level commitment these companies have to grow their business here,” said Dana Jones, president of the chamber.

“They see Putnam County as a viable place to spend their money on capital investments.” Bill Shanahan, Palatka’s new city manager, said everything is in place for continued growth in the city and the county. “No. 1, where we’re located puts us in perfect position for economic development with good roads going in and going out of the community,” Shanahan aid. “No. 2, I think we have an amazing airport that is being underused. “I think we can do great things here. It’s just a matter of getting everyone together, coming up with a war plan and moving forward.” Wayne McClain, a community advocate and vice president of Beck Automotive Group, has lived in the area for many years and is pleased with the progress he sees. “I’ve been here a long time and I’ve never seen this many positive steps taken by different entities in our community,” McClain said. “Now you see businesses coming to town, building permits increasing and people coming to stay here. “I think now’s our time to shine.”