April 2016 Articulate

Ushering in the New By Cherishing the Past

Written By: Chris Eversole

The City of Newberry is launching a new economic development effort based on the theme, “Enhancing the future while embracing the past.”

The effort includes a promotion campaign highlighting the city’s business friendly environment  that has helped attract a diverse array of companies.

Those companies include the Gourmet Rodent, a producer of rodents and reptiles, and a cement plant purchased in 2014 by Cementos Argos — a Colombia-based conglomerate well-known for its environmentally sensitive practices.

The campaign also pays tribute to Newberry’s heritage, as shown by its historic downtown and its small-town sense of community.

One resident carrying forth the heritage is Trevor Bass, who won the 2015 Young Farmer and Rancher Achievement in Agriculture Award from the Florida Farm Bureau.

Bass combines the old and the new. While he is the fourth generation of his family to farm in Newberry, he is constantly tweaking his mix of crops, with tilapia recently becoming his latest addition.

Longtime Newberry builder Norfleet Homes is developing CountryWay Town Square — a retail, office and residential development located north of the central city.

Newberry is also touting its sports tourism. The city is the home of the Easton Newberry Sports Complex, which includes an archery center that is an Olympic training site.

Newberry also operates Champions Park (formerly called Nations Park), a $7 million, 16-field baseball and softball complex that was built with Alachua County Tourist Development Tax dollars.

The economic development push is based on a unified approach by local leaders, said John Hartnett, president of the Newberry-Jonesville Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a testament to all stakeholders who have organized themselves to provide a very good business environment that is in balance with our heritage,” he said.

Open-Door Policy

Hartnett’s experience illustrates Newberry’s welcoming attitude to new business people. He was elected chamber president just over two years after he moved to town as the vice president of global business development at Endoscopy Replacement Parts, a manufacturing plant with global sales that moved to Newberry in 2006.

The city’s Economic Development Steering Committee exemplifies the city’s commitment to synergy, Hartnett said. The committee is very active, yet it is informal, with membership open to anyone who is interested instead of the formality of being appointed by the city commission.

“Everyone has a seat at the table, including folks from agriculture, manufacturing, construction and city government,” Hartnett said.

Other newcomers who are making an impact include City Manager Mike New and Planning and Economic Development Director Bryan Thomas.

New came to Newberry from Alachua, where he was public services director, and Thomas brings a background as both a government planner and a real estate agent to his job.

Years of Responsible Growth

Newberry set the stage for economic development more than 20 years ago, when it began annexing land into the city limits.

The city has grown from 1.5 square miles to 54 square miles, which approaches the City of Gainesville’s 62-acre land mass.

“City leaders annexed the land to provide a good potential for future growth based on local, business friendly planning,” Thomas said.

Newberry is advancing its planning through a proposed update to its comprehensive plan that will be presented to the city commission soon.

In addition, a State Route 26 Corridor Study is being completed. Property owners provided most of the money for the study, which covers the area west of the central city to the city limits.

“We’re looking at key opportunities to create nicer developments while maintaining the rural feel, something like the Progress Corporate Park in Alachua,” Thomas said.

Erasing Barriers

Newberry’s business friendly attitude was key in his decision to move the Gourmet Rodent to the city, said company founder Bill Brant.

As the company, founded in 1986, grew at its former site off Williston Road, Alachua County officials clamped down on it — following a single complaint, Brant said.

They set the requirement that the company obtain a special-use permit with the condition that it cut its number of employees (then 70) to 25 and operate on only five of the 15 acres at its site.

Brant turned to Newberry.

“What we saw there was open-mindedness,” he said.

That open-mindedness started with examining how the business operated.

“We determined it could be classified as a manufacturing process, and we modified our comprehensive plan and industrial zoning to accommodate the Gourmet Rodent,” Thomas said.

Brant has sold the company to Mike Layman, his longtime manager. The company is growing steadily in meeting the strong market for pet snakes and other reptiles.

When the Gourmet Rodent changed hands, Layman faced a shock — the need to make a $27,000 deposit for his electric service.

“He wanted us to trust that he would make his payments,” New said. “We looked at our deposits, and we discovered we had minimal losses from new commercial customers. We eliminated deposits on commercial accounts, and we refunded $45,000 in the first month.”

Layman is happy with the accommodation.

“I have never worked with any other municipality where I have had such a direct and open line of communication with my city leaders,” he said. “We came to the city looking for a place to do business, and we found a home.”

Another business that has relocated to Newberry is Inspired Energy, which manufactures high-tech batteries that have electronic chips to monitor their use and perform other functions.

The batteries power small electronic devices used by healthcare organizations, the military and industry. They also power the lights in the costumes of performers in Cirque du Soleil.

The company previously operated at the former battery plant located in unincorporated Alachua County outside the City of Alachua.

When it sought county approval for a new building, county officials balked, said Dave Baggaley, the sales and marketing director.

Inspired Energy talked with Newberry officials, assuring them that it uses battery cells that are manufactured elsewhere and that it assembles them into its battery packs, minimizing any chemical risk.

“It’s been great to work with a city that is fully onboard,” Baggaley said.

The company recently built a second factory next to its current one in the Newberry Commercial Park, and it expects to double its workforce of 75 over the next 10 years.

Outside Connections

The city has received economic development assistance from the state.

This included a $750,000 grant to run sewer and water lines to CountryWay Town Square, $20,000 for an economic development study, $25,000 toward the comprehensive plan update and $40,000 for the economic development marketing plan.

The city works closely with the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and its Council for Economic Outreach in attracting new business.

Newberry’s promotional campaign emphasizes the city’s proximity to Gainesville.

“We have the best of both worlds — with three A-rated schools, 22 churches, the agricultural feel, and friendly attitude while being close to Gainesville with its top hospitals, higher education and other opportunities,” said Newberry mayor Bill Conrad.

Conrad relates his own story to business prospects. After spending his career in the Air Force, he moved to Newberry 13 years ago. Longtime residents welcomed him and his wife, and he was elected to the city commission within three years.

“Not a lot of places are like Newberry, where everyone makes you feel part of the family and takes a shine to you.”

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