August 2016 Innovate

Hawthorne Renaissance


Written By: Chris Eversole

Matt Surrency grew up traversing the abundant woods and lakes around Hawthorne, and maintaining the area’s rustic character is imperative to him. But, Surrency also values restoring Hawthorne’s vitality, which has declined steadily since its heyday in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when it served as a mecca for northerners who came to hunt and fish, operated as an important rail stop, and maintained vital timber and agricultural operations. Surrency, whose grandmother was a city commissioner and mother was a mayor, has followed in their footsteps. He was elected to the city commission in 2009, and his fellow commissioners selected him as mayor in 2011, a position he has held since then.

Early in his tenure, Plum Creek (now Weyerhaeuser), the timber company with extensive holdings in eastern Alachua County, started talking to city officials about developing a portion of the Hawthorne area — a project that would be the size of a new city. The company planned to annex some land into the city and develop other larger holdings in the unincorporated area.

“I’m always skeptical, and I went over everything with a fine-toothed comb,” Surrency said. “I didn’t want our culture and character to change.”

Weyerhaeuser has since won over Surrency and the four other city commissioners. They were unified in a 5-0 vote in November 2015 that annexed some of the company’s land into the city — increasing Hawthorne’s area by 36 percent.

“We are able to decide what goes in,” Surrency said. “We’re adopting stringent controls.”

The follow-up to the annexation is taking place in two ways. First, Weyerhaeuser is developing a rezoning proposal for its Hawthorne land north of State Road 20 — based on mixed use — with the goal of completing the rezoning by January 2017. Second, the company is working with Enterprise Florida and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce to market the land.

“We’ve had site visits with several firms,” Weyerhaeuser Director of Real Estate Development Tim Jackson said. “We will become more active in marketing once the rezoning is completed.”

Hawthorne’s annexation contrasts with the Alachua County Commission’s March 3-2 vote to reject Weyerhaeuser’s proposed sector plan, which would have developed 3,380 acres in the unincorporated area while protecting 25,000 acres from development. The result would have created the potential for a research and development park associated with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, manufacturing plants, distribution centers, retail stores and homes — with a 50-year build-out.

The county commission vote followed lengthy public hearings in which proponents of the sector plan lauded the potential of creating up to 30,000 jobs, while opponents claimed the project would harm the environment and promote urban sprawl. The Hawthorne City Commission faced a similar division in testimony at its public hearings.

Donna Boles, president of the Hawthorne Area Chamber of Commerce, supported the annexation. “I hope Weyerhaeuser will create at least one major manufacturing plant, and that will spur spinoffs,” she said. “I want to revive and rejuvenate Hawthorne.”

Boles looks at the vitality of Alachua, which is home to distribution centers and the Progress Corporate Park.”We could do that,” she said. A growing group of business, civic and government leaders want progress, said Boles, who works at Hawthorne Insurance Agency “So few of us are workers,” she said. “The opponents (of Weyerhaeuser’s plans) are not involved in working for progress.”

Other Signs of Resurgence

The Weyerhaeuser annexation is accompanied by the following major accomplishments that are breathing new vitality into the Hawthorne area while protecting the environment:

  • A Love’s truck stop with a McDonald’s is scheduled to open in August, replacing the closed Cracker Boys’ Country Cafe on U.S. 301.
  • The Putnam Land Conservancy partnered with the city in purchasing 1,100 acres that is part of the Little Orange Creek Nature Park. A 5,000-square-foot home on the property will become an event center.
  • The Gainesville-Hawthome State Trail is being extended through downtown, ending at the nature preserve.
  • The State of Florida is widening State Road 20 east of Hawthorne.
  • A new feed store and a furniture store have opened, and the closed theater is reopening.

This progress follows more than five years of infrastructure improvements, mostly funded by state grants. With the $7 million that Love’s is investing, public and private improvements that have been completed or planned since 2010 total more than $18 million, City Manager Ellen Vause said. These improvements include a new water tower, replacement of water lines, the nature park project (which totals $4.5 million), a new Alachua County Fire Rescue Station (through $800,000 of county funds), and the extension of the bike and walking trail through downtown.

“Much of the infrastructure work was underground, and people couldn’t see it,” Surrency said. “It’s rewarding to see more tangible things happening.”

One of the business owners involved is Tracy Cantley, who has opened a used furniture store and is renovating the theater to show movies on weekends. Cantley also operates a roofing company. Cantley and Surrency were high school classmates, and they played baseball together.

“It’s exciting to be part of everything happening,” Cantley said. “Matt can’t do it alone. People have bought into his leadership.”

Cantley and Surrency, who are in their mid-30s, remember that the town was more vibrant when they were growing up in the late 1990s.

“All of us had jobs at places like Main Street Tire and Auto,” Cantley said.

The economy came to a trickle with the closing of businesses such as the tire and auto shop, he noted. A big blow came in 2011, when Georgia-Pacific closed its Hawthorne plywood plant that employed up to 400 people. Weyerhaeuser will potentially attract businesses that can bring in far more jobs than the ones that have been lost, Surrency said. “We see their vision, and we’ve bought into it.”

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Hawthorne area residents participate in an Envision Alachua workshop at city hall.

Specifics of Weyerhaeuser’s Plans

The land that Weyerhaeuser is developing within Hawthorne includes 1,198 acres that the city annexed and 165 acres that were previously within the city limits. Most of this land is now in forestry. The land that’s targeted for development is at the end of a winding 2.5-mile trail that starts on State Road 20 (Hawthorne Road). At the end of the trail, it abuts a CSX rail line that is a major freight carrier through Florida.

Weyerhaeuser also hopes to connect the land to U.S. 301 at that point. The access to the rail and a major highway is a big selling point in attracting businesses to the site, Jackson said. Forester and Weyerhaeuser Senior Manager of Planning for Florida Greg Galpin has been the land’s steward since 1981, working for Weyerhaeuser and its various predecessors. The company plans to continue its forestry, based on best management practices, Galpin noted.

Weyerhaeuser Means Business

Weyerhaeuser has been successful in other major economic development projects. For example, it is part of a joint venture that is providing land in South Carolina for Volvo’s first North American plant — representing an estimated $500 million investment.

The company is also developing the North Florida Mega Industrial Park in the Lake City area. It will serve as an inland port, with targeted businesses including those shipping goods in and out of Florida due to the Panama Canal expansion.

Another Weyerhaeuser project is the Heart of Georgia Mega Site, a 2,000-acre project located between Atlanta and Savanah. McCallum Sweeney Consulting, a national expert in site selection, has certified it as shovel-ready from warehouse, manufacturing and distribution centers.

The Hawthorne land is important for economic development benefitting Hawthorne, Alachua County and the entire State of Florida, said Gray Swoope, who is advising Weyerhaeuser on planning uses of the property

“It’s a huge advantage to have a willing property owner, a large amount land and great access to transportation,” said Swoope, who was previously Florida’s secretary of commerce. “It’s rare to have the cooperation that we have in Hawthorne.”

Senior Writer CHRIS EVERSOLE has been a keen observer of business, government and culture in the Greater Gainesville Area while living here over the past two decades. His experience includes work with the University of Florida and Alachua County Government. He also has been a journalist and public relations professional in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota-Bradenton areas, as well as in Michigan, Ohio and New York.

 

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