November 5, 2021
FEDC 2021 Rural Deal of the Year Award to SUWANNEE COUNTY
On October 14, 2021, the Florida Economic Development Council (FEDC) awarded the prestigious Rural Deal of the Year Award for 2021. The award was presented at FEDC’s Annual Conference in Kissimmee, Florida and focused on the extraordinary work associated with securing binderholz on Suwannee County’s catalyst site in Live Oak. FEDC is recognized as the statewide, membership-driven economic development association for the State of Florida.
Suwannee County has a 125-year history in the timber and sawmill industries. The location of the world's largest lumber producer in board feet was a perfect match for Suwannee County which is located in a natural "wood-basket" and a workforce with generational experience and knowledge in the industry. The former international owner/developer of the facility began their location process in 2011 and began operations in 2014. Unfortunately, the former owner had financial difficulty during 2019 which resulted in their filing bankruptcy in Delaware in the 1st quarter 2020 coinciding with COVID-19 pandemic which ended international travel just after company officials returned to their country of origin. As the bankruptcy process progressed, and the court system moved forward with auctioning the facility, a plethora of information was required for which only the local economic development organization, the county government, and the North Florida Economic Development (NFEDP) organization could provide.
A highly trained and experienced third-party professional was hired and approved by the bankruptcy court to facilitate the sale of the facility by auction. Jimmy Norris, Suwannee County Economic Development Director, was contacted by the representative and in turn Norris contacted the NFEDP which had assisted in the location and development of the facility. At that point Jimmy Norris, the NFEDP, utility providers, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection began the arduous work of researching permits, reviewing contracts for services, providing archived information to resolve a gambit of issues on a daily basis. What was the fire protection plan? Who does the new owner need to speak to for their natural gas connection? What kind of redundancy is built into the electric service? What is the status of the federal rail permit, the storm water permit, EPA’s permit and DEP’s air quality permit?
The local workforce and community had a lot of concern as to whether a new company purchasing the facility would simply dismantle it to sell piece-meal to the highest bidder. In small rural counties without a local TV station or a daily newspaper, often times a lot of misinformation is generated and spreads quickly. Jimmy Norris was able to maintain a consistent flow of non-confidential information through the local newspaper and by providing updates at the BOCC and civic meetings. Because of the manner in which the former owner left, many former employees were very uncertain as to their future employment while at the same time local businesses were having to close due to COVID-19. The FEDC’s 2021 Conference theme “Pivot and Persist” was exactly what Suwannee County under Jimmy Norris’ leadership did!
“Our community is so grateful for the confidence and trust binderholz has demonstrated with their commitment to Suwannee County. This project will truly serve as a catalyst for additional, high-quality business and employment growth for our County and the NFEDP region”, stated Suwannee County Commissioner Don Hale.
Many of those involved in the inspection of the closed facility believed there had been deferred maintenance, and many of the vendors which had provided goods and services were owed a huge sum of money. For these reasons, many of the large national and international companies had serious concerns as to whether those vendors would be willing to provide those same goods and services to whatever new company purchased the facility. All the while, COVID-19 was causing issues for international travel for foreign companies needing to inspect the facility, equipment and determine its value. An extraordinary amount of virtual coordination meetings and discussions ensued to alleviate bidders’ concerns. Norris stated, “I focused on bidders who had expressed a desire to bring the facility back to its robust start and a couple who had plans for expansion.” As this was communicated to the citizens not only in Suwannee County but also in surrounding counties, a sense of hope began to build along with enthusiasm of support from the community.
Even though skepticism was very high, we left no stone unturned in the pursuit of a new owner for the sawmill. We stayed in constant communication with the chief restructuring officer, Mike Freeman. “We met constantly with government leaders and our community to educate them on the upcoming processes that would be occurring. We initiated numerous tours of the facility with officials from both local and state governments. Many of our local business leaders also toured the facility in hopes of building early relationships as we navigated through the process”, stated Norris.
There were also numerous physical obstacles that we had to deal with. In mid-June, we received approximately 15 inches of rain in two days. This left the road to the sawmill completely impassable and therefore unable to access for potential buyers. The county’s public works team jumped in and for three straight days pumped water so that the entrance to the facility was able to be reopened. In the middle of this endeavor, however, a large sinkhole opened up at the facility’s main entrance. The date was June 17, 2020, and as would be the case we had a potential buyer coming in the next few days. Norris, who has an extensive background in construction, worked with several local contractors and they were able to rectify the situation in a timely manner.
The Suwannee County EDO is very fortunate to have a great network of like-minded individuals. From the very beginning of the plant closing, we knew that the security of the facility was of extreme importance. After a brief conversation, Suwannee County Sheriff’s office jumped into action and had boots on the ground almost immediately on a 24/7 basis to protect the mill and its assets.
After security was put into place, we quickly realized electricity was our next obstacle. Without power, the mill could deteriorate in a matter of weeks or months. It is crucial for machinery to be cycled so that gears and bearings don’t corrode. Mike McWaters, Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative Executive Director, and development partner, met with us on-site and gave us his commitment that he would get the power turned back on to preserve the integrity of the entire facility. Not only did he follow through on that promise, but because of covid mandates it was difficult to meet in a safe manner. Mike volunteered the Coop’s state-of-the-art conference room where highly regulated safety protocols were in place for us to have our confidential meetings with potential owners.
Because the sawmill facility’s huge footprint, it is difficult for individuals to cover on foot. Greg Scott, Director of Parks and Recreation and a very active volunteer in economic development, offered up golf carts from the Recreation Department to assist those traveling to the site to inspect the facility.