Sumter County is unveiling plans for a mega industrial site projected to create 25,791 jobs by 2035, Sumter County officials said.
County officials are working with the Sola family, the owners of the Monarch Ranch, to prepare the 2,866 acres for 16 million square feet of industrial uses.
The site would serve as an inland port where freight and merchandise would be collected and distributed throughout Florida and the Southeast United States.
While it is off the coast, it has several features that make it ideal for large-scale distribution, experts say, including the presence of freight rail and proximity to international air freight, deep-water ports and major interstate highways.
The ranch is located south of Florida’s Turnpike and runs parallel to Interstate 75 down to the city of Coleman. The CSX line borders the entire ranch on the eastern side of the property. It is one of several properties that are also part of the industrial mix.
The ranch is the largest property in terms of acreage, county officials confirmed.
A local economist said the project could be a boon for the county but at the same time cautioned that the development will not occur overnight.
“We want to be recognized as the first-stop location for a lot of new freight movement coming through the Panama Canal for the East Coast of the United States,” said Matt Walsh, the county’s economic development coordinator. “We will be able to coordinate industrial growth with residential growth.”
The Panama Canal is adding a shipping lane that will double the canal’s capacity. When it is finished, it will be able to accommodate ships that can carry up to 13,000 TEUs, which is the standard measure of shipping units. Ships using the canal are currently limited to 5,000 TEUs.
A TEU is a twenty-foot equivalent unit, and each standard shipping container is two TEUs.
Walsh said the location will provide access to a high speed rail line and connection points to major international ports such as Port of Jacksonville, Port Canaveral and Port of Tampa, as well as international air freight terminals.
“There are excellent opportunities to have manufacturers relocate their significant amount of business designated for export,” he said. “It is four and a half hours or less from any port in the state of Florida.”
Potential industries that may relocate to the region include manufacturing, assembly and redistribution, Walsh said.
Sumter County Commissioner Doug Gilpin said the site is one of the “largest acreage commercial developments in the state.”
“We are hoping that designation and future development will become a transportation hub” for port, rail and the freeway system, Gilpin said.
“It is a large tract of land,” he said. “It will bring a large number of customers with very good paying jobs and that is something that is needed in Sumter County.”
Walsh said the county wants to attract manufacturing jobs.
“We have a small current manufacturing base with tremendous opportunities for rapid expansion,” he said.
The idea for an inland port came up more than 10 years ago, Gilpin said.
“For many years the government spun its wheels and Sumter County was weak in economic development,” he said.
Now, that has changed, he said.
“Sumter County has taken a more business-like approach in the last 10 years,” he said.
Gilpin noted there are even more opportunities for expansion.
With the Monarch Ranch property adjacent to CSX, Gilpin said there could be opportunities for a CSX expansion hub.
“They have a large portion of acreage along their tracks,” he said. “It is suitable for rail expansion.”
CSX owns 631 acres along the east side of the railroad tracks adjacent to the ranch.
The development sends a message to taxpayers that Sumter County is business friendly, Gilpin said.
The Florida Department of Transportation is evaluating the site to determine if it has the characteristics to be designated an inland port.
Sumter County officials are optimistic the property will receive the designation.
At the same time, county officials hope to receive approval from the FDOT to build a new interchange on I-75, at the south end of the property, spurring further economic growth.
T.J. Fish, executive director of the Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the MPO and Sumter County officials are working with the FDOT to study a potential interchange at County Road 514 and I-75.
At the same time, there is another study concerning the possible widening of U.S. Highway 301 from Wildwood at State Road 44 south to Sumterville at County Road 470 west.
“Because of what we are doing in terms of developing ideas into projects, we are enabling Sumter County to have an effective approach to economic development,” Fish said.
Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness, said with the amount of cargo projected to increase substantially through Florida’s ports, Sumter’s proximity to the ports might give the county an opportunity to handle the increased load.
“It is about location and how much goods you have to move around,” he said. “That will determine the success of an inland port.”
Because Sumter is located between Tampa and Orlando, it could also serve as a distribution point for goods that are also coming from within the U.S., Snaith said.
Snaith said the inland port is a good idea for fostering economic development.
But Snaith cautioned that success will not come overnight.
“I don’t think it is a short-run adrenaline burst,” he said. “It is not something that overnight is going to explode. It is something that requires some planning and forethought.”