Plum Creek's plans stir optimism in Hawthorne
Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 10:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 10:51 p.m.
HAWTHORNE — The recession was hard enough on the businesses in this town of 1,600 in eastern Alachua County. Then Georgia-Pacific closed its plywood mill just over the county line in Putnam County in 2011, eliminating more than 400 jobs and many of the customers who frequented the restaurants and stores in town.
Since then, the NAPA Auto Parts store, a car wash and a gun shop have closed and a large restaurant space north of town that once employed 40 people has sat empty for several years.
"I think Georgia-Pacific was the final straw that broke the camel's back," City Manager Ellen Vause said.
Other businesses have cut employees and are just trying to hang on to the employees and the business they have, said Donna Boles of Hawthorne Insurance Agency.
"It's a dying little town," she said.
But Boles said she is seeing a little bit more enthusiasm at the Hawthorne Area Chamber of Commerce as a result of changes in leadership at City Hall over the past couple years and the buzz building around the Plum Creek Timber Company singling out the area for economic development potential on its nearby lands.
Plum Creek has spent the past two years taking ideas from people throughout the county as it works on a long-term master plan for its 65,000 acres in Alachua County, making it the largest private landowner in the county.
While most of those acres are slated for conservation, with Plum Creek keeping the timber rights, the company has identified a handful of areas with development potential, including an area just north and west of Hawthorne as one of two areas they plan to focus on first for its development potential.
Preliminary ideas include trying to lure a major manufacturing tenant to take advantage of the nearby access to U.S. 301, State Road 20 and the CSX rail line that runs along 301.
After taking ideas from hundreds of people at its Envision Alachua meetings that started two years ago, Plum Creek brought its presentation to Hawthorne for the first time Wednesday night at Vause's invitation.
More than 120 people showed up in the cafeteria at Shell Elementary School to learn about the planning process and put in their two cents about what they'd like to see.
Following a presentation about the process to date, the audience was divided into 10 groups to talk about the assets and needs of the area that they then presented to the entire group.
Several people mentioned that they want to preserve their rural way of life.
"We want to keep the small-town charm, but with that you have to have some growth," said Ginger Stanford, who is on the staff at Shell.
Justin Williams, of Melrose, said he joined Plum Creek's Envision Alachua task force to ensure he can keep the quality of life he enjoys.
"The task force has worked very hard to protect the quality of life we all enjoy now," he said. "We also understand we are going through a period now that has tested that. It is strained. Change is needed, and opportunity must be allowed."
Several people also mentioned that the area needs vocational training such as a branch of Santa Fe College for apprenticeships.
Sherry Edwards said the local schools have space that could be used for such a purpose immediately.
Hawthorne City Commissioner Tommy Howard said the city needs more restaurants, after-school options for kids and health care facilities.
He said there is a concern that all the truck traffic on U.S. 301 passes through without stopping.
Task force member Rob Brinkman said the group recognized Hawthorne's amenities such as the highways and rail from the beginning of the process.
"There's been a lot of misimpressions, a lot of talk that Plum Creek is talking about bringing Haile Plantation to the east side of the county," Brinkman said. "Their focus is on economic development, creating jobs. Creating good jobs, jobs for all levels of education."
Planner Daniel Iacofano, of Berkeley, Calif.-based MIG Inc., said they see an opportunity on the rural acreage with agriculture returning to America's shores and the agricultural research coming out of the University of Florida.
Iacofano urged the audience to talk up Plum Creek's plans and get involved as people visit for this weekend's Hawthorne Homecoming.