Florida Crystals executives, in Tallahassee Wednesday for Palm Beach County Days, said they have been seeking a settlement with the Department of Community Affairs to continue the company's Inland Logistics Center south of Lake Okeechobee.
At a meeting of Palm Beach County officials lobbying Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, on Wednesday, the sugar giant's representatives said their petition for a land-use change that will allow the company to build a 318-acre inland port south of Lake Okeechobee was found not in compliance with state growth management laws by DCA in November 2009.
While negotiations are ongoing, the two company executives said they have encountered roadblocks from DCA and the governor's office.
Danny Martell and Gaston Cantens of Florida Crystals said they had been informed by DCA that the agency was unwilling to settle its differences with the company.
And, the company is frustrated. Along with many others.
“From what we can tell, no concerns have been raised that there aren't solutions for,” said Cantens, vice president of Corporate Relations for Florida Crystals.
Late last year, the Port of Palm Beach picked Florida Crystals' Okeelanta facility as the site of its inland port to relieve heavy container traffic at South Florida’s seaside ports. The center is a warehouse and distribution site that can aid in the movement of cargo. It also readies Florida for the widening of the Panama Canal in 2013.
DCA has been reviewing Florida Crystals' land-use amendment, approved by Palm Beach County Commissioners in April 2009, that will allow for the conversion of the site to an inland port.
Initially, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection urged DCA, the state’s growth management agency, to oppose the project due to its possible impact on future Everglades restoration plans. Environmental advocates have also spoken against it.
Many local officials and advocates have praised the port as an opportunity to boost job creation in western Palm Beach County, where unemployment has reached more than 40 percent. The inland port could create 2,400 jobs in its first phase.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Palm Beach County Commission Chairman Burt Aaronson told Atwater Wednesday. “It’s going to take many years. We’re going to fight for it.”
Martell said Florida Crystals is still interested in negotiating with DCA and has worked to compensate for the agency’s concern about urban sprawl and other issues.
“All we want is to settle our differences with the DCA,” Martell said.
Cantens felt the rejection was influenced by Gov. Charlie Crist’s office, saying wryly he would have no respect for Crist if he had not fought to reject the ILC proposal, since Florida Crystals has been at odds with the governor's own proposal to purchase U.S. Sugar Corp. Florida Crystals has publicly condemned the land deal as waste of taxpayer dollars.
Cantens added that unfortunately the governor wasn't hurting the company, but the rural cities of western Palm Beach County instead, who desperately need economic development.
Attempts to reach Crist’s office for comment failed.
James Miller, spokesman for DCA, said negotiations with Florida Crystals have not broken down and, in fact, have just started. He said he could not comment on the case or the agency’s issues with the project.
“We’re definitely still talking about it,” he said.
State Rep. Mackenson “Mack” Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, said he heard representatives from Pahokee and environs met Wednesday with Tom Pelham, secretary of DCA, to find out why the amendment was rejected. But, they didn't find out too many specifics.
Speaking of DCA, he said, "I think pretty much what they‘re requiring is impossible.”
Ashley Tripp, president of the Lake Okeechobee Regional Economic (LORE) Alliance, said the port was one of the best chances for rural western Palm Beach County, struggling as it is with dire economic conditions.
“This is so devastating,” she said.
Nancy Smith contributed to this story.