Water-issue protesters greet UF's Stronach center dedication
Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 at 4:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 at 4:31 p.m.
CITRA — Billionaire auto parts magnate Frank Stronach said high school bands usually welcome him at openings for his factories, so he "felt a bit bad" about being met by protesters at Tuesday's dedication of a University of Florida conference center named after him.
Stronach donated $1.5 million to fund construction of the center at UF's Plant Research and Education Unit in Citra. As officials dedicated the facility, dozens of protesters outside the gates picketed against Stronach's bid for a permit to pump more than 13 million gallons of groundwater a day for a cattle operation he plans near Fort McCoy.
Stronach pledged at the dedication that he would do everything he could to prevent damage to water resources, if necessary cutting back on water usage and developing an alternative.
"I want to be a good corporate citizen here, not to come in here and say, ‘Gee, I've got some moneys (and) I've got to do this, if people like it or not,' " he said. "Far from it. I don't want to have any confrontations."
The 10,000-acre cattle operation, called Adena Springs Ranch, would include a grass-fed cattle ranch and a meat processing plant. Protesters object to the size of the water permit being sought from the St. Johns River Water Management District — more water than the city of Ocala uses each day — and pumping groundwater that feeds the already declining Silver Springs.
"We've got a deficit here that we're not going to make up if we keep issuing new permits," said Robert Knight, director and founder of the H.T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in Gainesville.
Stronach, an Austrian-Canadian businessman, founded the auto parts company Magna International. He's also involved in horse racing and owns a thoroughbred horse farm in northwest Marion County.
Florida cattle are usually shipped to meat-processing plants in other states, so Stronach said his plant would keep them here in a modern operation that wouldn't expose them to pain or stress. He said he would take the steps necessary "that when it finally comes down that the people which live around here will say, ‘This processing plant will have no negative effect on the environment and will be very positive to the agricultural community.' "
He started working with UF researchers on the project when he made the donation for the center. With state funding for university buildings having dried up, the donation funded the center's construction. The facility, called the Frank Stronach Plant Science Center, includes a 5,380-square-foot multipurpose building and a 7,000-square-foot open pavilion.
Annette Long, president of the environmental group Save Our Suwannee, said naming the center after Stronach would carry a negative connotation if he obtained the water permit.
"If we let him have this permit and let him drain Silver Springs dry, it will be more an epitaph to the springs than an honor," she said.
The center will host about 20 "field days" annually in which agricultural researchers showcase their work for farmers. UF classes also are expected to be held there. Jack Payne, the head of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said he was disappointed protesters picked the venue for their protest.
"We're trying to solve the water problem," he said. "I'm dedicated to making water the No. 1 issue that IFAS does."
The facility is located at a UF center for research involving various plants, such as breeding new varieties of blueberries, growing sugar cane that can be used for fuel and developing turf for golf courses and sports fields. UF President Bernie Machen said the dedication was "a good day for Florida's economy" because of the research done there.
"This is a huge incubator, in a sense, for the agriculture industry," he said.
Tuesday's dedication brought UF officials and Marion County commissioners who rescheduled their meetings to be able to attend. Gov. Rick Scott didn't attend, despite reports that he might, but Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos was there. Officials played a video about Stronach's business success and unveiled a plaque honoring him.
As Stronach and officials cut a ribbon outside the center, protesters could be heard chanting as they held signs beyond the fence with sayings such as "No free water for cows" and "Our wells are being sucked dry by greed." Despite a news release from UF that said the dedication was open to the public, protesters were turned away at the gate and sheriff's deputies stood guard.
Stronach, 79, said his reputation was more important than money and that he didn't want to be known for harming the environment.
"At my age, I don't need it," he said.
Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.