The Hawthorne Industry Park, annexed by the city in 2015, is a 634-acre plot of land off U.S. Highway 301 and State Road 20, that city officials hope will bring much-needed jobs to the area.
Born and raised in Hawthorne and mayor since 2011, Mayor Matthew Surrency said he sees good paying jobs as one of the primary objectives for the Hawthorne Industry Park.
While the park’s site appears to be nothing but trees, looks can be deceiving.
Weyerhaeuser, the developer, has prepared the site and obtained approvals for 3.5 million square feet of industrial, manufacturing and logistics development and 150,000 square feet of commercial space to attract businesses. The site will be built to suit any company that selects it.
The Hawthorne Industry Park is also approved as an “opportunity zone.” Companies may qualify for preferential tax treatment if they relocate there.
Ellen Vause, city manager of Hawthorne said, “They already have their land entitlements. There is no government process that the potential client has to go through.”
A company choosing to operate in the park would not have to obtain zoning or water management permits, allowing it to open faster.
“They don’t have to do anything. The site is ‘shovel ready,’” said Vause.
Weyerhaeuser did not make any company representatives available for an interview.
Mayor Surrency explained that the project has many benefits including expansion of the tax base, jobs and other community enhancements. While he acknowledges that not all community feedback has been enthusiastic, in his opinion most support it.
“I think the vast majority of people would be happy if someone came in, provided opportunity for employment, did it responsibly and protected or enhanced our environment, and maintained the character of our community. I don’t think many people would have a problem with that,” Surrency said.
In terms of the cost to the taxpayer, the mayor stresses that this project should be “a net gain” to the residents of Hawthorne.
“In theory, what would happen is that we would be spreading out the tax burden across a larger valuation of properties,” he said. “It shouldn’t affect any resident’s water or sewer costs.”
The park is marketed by the City of Hawthorne, Weyerhaeuser, the Hawthorne Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Gainesville Chamber of Commerce as a potential manufacturing, industrial or commercial site.
One of the selling points is the central location near highways like Interstates 10 and 75. Airports, rail, cargo ports, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College are also in close proximity.
No potential companies have been named nor have any selected the park as their new home-yet.
Vause acknowledges that the pandemic has slowed the process. Potential businesses have “put the brakes on due to COVID,” she said.
Surrency explained that they are targeting companies with jobs that pay higher than the current average wage for the area. According to www.city-data.com, Hawthorne’s estimated median household income in 2019 was $35,781.
“We have had several corporations interested to bring jobs here that fit the needs for our community,” he said. “These also fit the character of our community.”
While the pre-work has been done for zoning and permitting, the project still has to bring the water and wastewater infrastructure closer to the park for potential companies. The website for the park indicates it is “shovel ready” but this does not mean that the water is easily accessible – yet.
“I believe if we had the utilities out there right now that we would have an abundance of companies trying to come,” Surrency said.
The closest water utilities at the site are about one mile away. During the January 5 city commission meeting, David Richardson, a utility consultant, presented some options to fund this infrastructure project.
Richardson’s options include impact fees, a special new water district, developer agreements, grants and low-cost loans. He sees all the options as viable.
“There is grant money available and that is the most cost-effective thing they can do,” said Richardson.
Surrency sees the options provided as tools in a toolbox.
“The key is regardless of which tool we try to use in the process that we make sure that the citizens are not left with the responsibility to fund it,” Surrency said.
The city manager agrees.
“The goal of our city commission is to not impact taxpayers,” Vause said.
She stresses that the community needs jobs.
“We have been a bedroom community for Gainesville, but we need jobs here in Hawthorne to get that economic base to continue to improve our quality of life,” Vause said. She is hopeful that the first company will set a date and open the door for the rest of the park to be developed.
Surrency wants to reassure residents that the city is proceeding carefully to “get it right the first time.”
“We want to make sure that we grow smart. We want to provide opportunity, but not at the sacrifice of our environment or our community. We want to make sure that it enhances our community and does not detract from it,” he said.