It looked like a perfect solution. A mammoth, mixed-use development would be built to inject energy into a flagging Nassau County economy like a vitamin B-12 shot.
A harsh economic recession was ending. And county officials were searching for an economic boost. That was 10 years ago.
Fast forward to today, and the Wildlight project is now a reality. Amid old timberland tracts, two impressive corporate headquarters are built, glitzy retail complexes are planned, and high-tech houses are popping out of the ground like colorful wildflowers. And much more is coming.
Yet terms of the agreement between Wildlight’s corporate parent and the county are still being hashed out and debated. A meeting over the stalemate this week was mostly attended by only one side.
Rayonier, the parent of developer Radient Places + Properties, sent an attorney to briefly represent its case. No one representing a Wildlight governing board attended. Mostly, the meeting involved county commissioners expressing differences and grievances over the terms of their agreement with Radient/Rayonier.
There was little resolution following the county meeting. Mostly, the meeting consisted of County Manager Mike Mullin explaining the terms of the Wildlight agreement. When the Wildlight concept was introduced in the late 2000s, Mullin was in private practice as an attorney for Rayonier.
In fact, Mullin made numerous presentations for Rayonier to county commissioners at that time. Since then, the commissioners have changed, as has the county staff. Mullin is just about the only remaining or common participant.
Some of the terms reportedly were never finalized. They existed on an informal “handshake” basis. Since then, differences have arisen over a variety of terms, like which party will pay for recreational facilities within Wildlight. And who controls what.
“We’re in a position,” says Commissioner Pat Edwards, “where we don’t have control.”
A Rayonier spokesman contacted the News-Leader to respond to last week’s “Steve’s Marketplace” column about the worsening standoff. Alejandro Barbero, a director of communications for Rayonier, rejects any negative perception about Wildlight.
“This project started as a way for the county to diversify its tax base 10 years ago,” Barbero says. “We are part of the solution.”
In many ways, this is true. Rayonier paid little in taxes for 2,900 acres of timberland that will become Wildlight, an industrial/commercial/residential behemoth.
For instance, Rayonier used to pay $7 a year in property taxes for the timberland site on which its corporate headquarters is now built. The re-valued two-acre site now generates $137,000 in tax revenues for the county.
“It’s bringing tax revenues into the county,” Barbero says. “If we don’t do this (Wildlight), those tax dollars don’t exist. These are future dollars this is creating.”
The county’s inadequate, outdated infrastructure is not Rayonier’s fault. Explosive growth throughout the county – from Amelia Island to Callahan – has cast light on the inferior roads here, among other shortcomings.
Barbero cites studies claiming that large industrial/commercial projects can produce “a net positive benefit” for surrounding areas by diversifying and bolstering the tax base. Within the Wildlight community, a “Commerce Park” section consists of 80 acres of industrial-use land.
“This leaves money in the county coffers to do things outside (of Wildlight),” Barbero says. “By all means, we stand ready to get to a solution for everyone.”
Barbero disagrees with any notion that Wildlight receives a significant tax break from the county. “There is not a property tax reduction,” Barbero says. (It was incorrectly stated in last week’s column that Wildlight received a 13 percent tax reduction.)
The next move in the impasse could be critical. Both sides want to get along, as Wildlight will be at the forefront of county activity for many years. Commissioners say Rayonier is not living up to its agreements; Rayonier says it is.
One local official sees it this way: “There is a sense of desperation to get something done.”
(Steve Nicklas is a financial advisor and a chartered retirement planning counselor for a regional U.S. firm who lives on Amelia Island. He is also an award-winning columnist. His business columns regularly appear in several newspapers in North Florida and on his website SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book of his favorite columns from the last 20 years, “All About Money.” The book is available in local stores and on Amazon. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)