Reversal of fortune
Published: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 11:15 p.m.
When Jim Poole was given the charge of turning around the economic development efforts in Columbia County, he was met with a rather ominous sign.
Executive director, Lake City-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, Columbia County Industrial Development Authority
It was 1993, and the country was still coming off a recession that had stunted the economy. Lake City wasn't spared, as three car dealerships had shut down and several shopping centers sat empty - and the scene at one particular plaza summed it all up for Poole.
"It actually had buzzards roosting on the top and circling around it," said Poole, executive director of the Lake City-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. "We had a lot of empty buildings around town, and it was tough to draw business in here. It really looked like a blighted area."
Now, as Poole approaches his 10th anniversary at the helm of local commercial development, the view from his office is decidedly different. Retailers are thriving, a pair of companies that account for more than 1,200 jobs have settled in and the region has shed its ghost-town status.
The economy's improvement had much to do with Columbia County's reversal of fortune, but Poole also credits a renewed effort by city and county officials to work together on local development.
"We got beyond fighting for credit on certain projects, and we started team-building," said Poole, 56. "Everybody was ready for something positive to happen."
The addition of a $30 million hospital and an ongoing renovation to Lake City's downtown region are among the highlights in recent years, but Poole pointed to the addition of two large businesses as having a significant impact on the region's work force.
Service Zone, a technical support center for several computer manufacturers, came to the region three years ago and employs more than 700 people. Homes of Merit, a house manufacturing company, also set up shop in Lake City and has grown its payroll to about 500 employees.
"With Homes of Merit, the county built the initial building for the company and we lease it to them," Poole said. "Things have turned around nicely for us."
Poole has also been a force in coordinating regional economic development efforts in North Central Florida, said W.D. Higginbotham Jr., economic development program director with the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council. Higginbotham and Poole serve on a regional committee supervised by the planning council.
"Jim is a true team player," Higginbotham said. "He works hard for Lake City and Columbia County, but he also sees our effort as a regional effort. Even if a company isn't interested in locating to or expanding in his area, he's quick to help people in other neighboring counties attract that business."
Poole is a Live Oak native who started his career in 1972 as a manager at the Holiday Inn in Lake City. His work with the hotel chain took him to Louisiana for some time, but he returned to the local Holiday Inn as its general manager in 1980.
Poole remained at the hotel until 1990, when he took the general manager's job at the local Cabot Lodge. He joined the chamber in January 1993, and at the same time took the job as executive director of the Columbia County Industrial Development Authority. He has handled double-duty for the past 10 years.
Attracting industry to Columbia County has been more difficult than drawing retail and other types of business, Poole said.
"Everybody's competing for the same types of manufacturers, so it can be tough," he said. "We've had some smaller operations with about 10 workers at each company that have set up here in recent years."
The best thing that has happened for the region's economy, Poole said, is its diversification in the past decade. For many years, the local work force's fate hinged on the success of two large businesses - phosphate mining company PCS Phosphate in White Springs, and TIMCO, an aircraft maintenance company in Lake City.
Although PCS recently brought 300 employees back to work, it laid off nearly 400 workers as recently as January 2001 and has had large-scale layoffs several times in the past. Like PCS, TIMCO has often fluctuated with the economy and has also cut a high number of jobs.
"We used to be so dependent on those two companies," Poole said. "If they went down, we suffered with them. We still hurt with them when they're down, but not as badly."
Joe Coombs can be reached at (352) 338-3102 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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