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Who's driving this road effort?

Some high-powered people are working to build a new highway down the middle of the state.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER AND MATTHEW WAITE
Published March 3, 2007


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LAKE PLACID - Blue Head Ranch is flat, parched grassland split in two by a stretch of blacktop called U.S. 70.

But this dusty outpost could become one of Central Florida's hottest real estate commodities if a mammoth toll road wins approval by the state. Nearly all of Blue Head Ranch lies within a large swath where a $7-billion expressway could go.

The 62,000-acre ranch belongs to a company headed by J.D. Alexander, a powerful state senator with Florida royalty in his blood.

Alexander has been instrumental in pushing for the road by helping to form a lobbying group stocked with some of the most storied real estate dynasties in Florida. They, too, own thousands of acres along the toll road route.

The road campaign comes at a time when Alexander's businesses, and those of some of his relatives, are shifting from farming and ranching to land development. Their plans could be aided by a fast expressway through half a dozen rural Florida counties.

Dubbed the Heartland Parkway, the proposed 152-mile road would redraw the map of an undeveloped region now dominated by ranches and swamps. It would also beckon development. History suggests the price of the land along it would skyrocket.

"There was a time when this would have been debated," said Reid Ewing, a professor at the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth. "But like with global warming, most people would agree that if you build a road through a rural area, you are making it more attractive for development."

Reaping those benefits would be companies controlled by Alexander, who is vying to become Senate president in three years. The Polk County Republican inherited an agricultural empire from his grandfather, one of the most famous land barons of them all, Ben Hill Griffin Jr.

Alexander said he stopped personally promoting the project in 2005. He still supports it, however, and said the road isn't about his personal gain, but enriching the lives of those he represents.

"Most job growth in my counties comes from facilities such as prisons and power plants that coastal communities like St. Petersburg don't want," said Alexander. "If we want to improve the lives of the people who elect me, we're going to need roads built. Only with roads do we get economic development and jobs."

A new patron

In 2005, after talks with other large landowners, Alexander met three times with state officials to promote the idea of a north-south road. Two meetings were with top transportation officials. A third was with Gov. Jeb Bush.

About the same time, Alexander said, he asked the Senate's general counsel whether he had a conflict. He said he was told if he avoided discussions with government decisionmakers on a subject that affects him financially, he had no conflict.

"I've done what he told me," Alexander said.

Soon, the road project found a new patron.

The Heartland Economic, Agricultural and Rural Task Force, or HEART, was created in late 2005. The nonprofit group boasted a pedigree of Florida's landed elite, including Lykes Bros. and Collier Enterprises.

The group faxed a map to the Florida's Turnpike Enterprise in February 2006.

Sketched across Polk County was a hand-drawn road that forked below Winter Haven, records at the Turnpike show. A similar route was adopted a month later by the state when it unveiled plans for the Heartland Parkway, one of nine expressways it is considering across rural Florida.

The amateur mapmaker was a lobbyist for HEART, an Orlando lawyer who was with Alexander in the meetings with Bush and the DOT officials.

Even though the route that was adopted by the state swallows nearly all of the Blue Head Ranch, Alexander said he had no role in determining the route and is not involved with HEART.

"I haven't participated in HEART meetings, and I don't personally involve myself in what they're doing," he said.

Corporate documents show Alexander has at least three past and present links to HEART.

- Its president is Renee Dabbs, who works at a Tampa political consulting firm called the Victory Group. Records show Alexander paid the firm more than $90,000 during his 2004 campaign. The firm handles corporate communications of a company partly controlled by Alexander.

- A citrus grower named Bryan Paul is listed as director. Paul did business with Alexander, who sold Paul citrus from 2000 to 2004.

- Last year, Nancy Watkins was listed as HEART's treasurer. Watkins, a Tampa accountant, is listed as the treasurer for Alexander's fundraising committee, Floridians for Better Government, which has raised more than $341,000 since 2000.

Alexander said he may have recommended the Victory Group to HEART and told Paul to get involved with the group. He said he had no role in Watkins' involvement.

But he did recommend the man who would become HEART's public face, Rick Dantzler.

The two Polk County men know each other well. Dantzler, a Democrat, left a state Senate seat in 1998 in a failed bid for governor and then lieutenant governor. Dantzler is also an attorney for a company with strong ties to Alexander.

His duties at HEART include meeting with landowners, environmental groups and editorial boards to explain the group's position.

On Wednesday, Dantzler met with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board and said HEART had the same goal as the general public: responsible long-term growth that can preserve the environment.

Although a list of all HEART members wasn't available, Dantzler said the group represents owners of more than a million acres, some of which are in the road's path. In exchange for the road, the owners might donate land for it and agree to develop in narrow pockets.

Development would follow strict guidelines to make it more attractive than the typical suburban growth found along highways such as Interstate 75, Dantzler said. Large areas would be conserved, while the corridor could include hiking trails and space for mass transit.

In February, the DOT deemed the northern leg of the parkway feasible. The state plans an engineering study.

"Growth is coming regardless," Dantzler said. "How do we get it right this time? We have the opportunity to transform the region in a positive way."

A changing mission

That region covers landlocked counties of Central Florida still untouched by the suburban development that began consuming Florida 50 years ago.

It has long been the epic domain of land-owning families. Among the most prominent was the Ben Hill Griffin Jr. clan.

One of the Griffin empire's crown jewels was Alico Inc. Formed in 1960 by the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Co., it aimed to make money off land not used by rail.

Griffin, who served on the board, bought out Alico in 1972 and reigned over operations in cattle, citrus, sugar cane, timber and vegetables.

Griffin was a larger-than-life Cracker millionaire, donating vast sums of money to the University of Florida, serving in the Legislature, running for governor. When he died in 1990 at age 79, he left behind an estimated $300-million estate that his descendents, including former U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, feuded over for years.

His family still controls the empire.

J.D. Alexander's father, John R. Alexander, is Alico's CEO.

Alexander's cousin, Baxter Griffin Troutman, sits on the Alico board and is also a state lawmaker, a Republican representative from Winter Haven.

Alico has a history of finding government allies useful when it comes to developing its land.

In the mid 1990s, the Legislature authorized building the state's 11th university somewhere in Southwest Florida. Alico offered a site near Fort Myers that was selected over two other bids, even though it was one with the greatest environmental impact.

As the Times reported in 2005, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was slow to approve a permit the university needed to destroy 76 acres of wetlands, Connie Mack, then Florida's U.S. senator, called up the colonel in charge of the corps in Florida and cussed him out.

"He used terms over the telephone that weren't very flattering," the colonel, Terry Rice, said in 2005. "It wasn't a pleasant conversation."

Rice approved the permit in 1995, clearing the way for Florida Gulf Coast University - and spurring the development of thousands of acres of land around it, also owned by Alico.

J.D. Alexander, the state senator, is CEO of a company called Atlantic Blue Group, which owns the majority of shares in Alico. Atlantic Blue Group owns citrus groves and is one of the largest cattle operations in the state. It owns Blue Head Ranch in Highlands County.

Inheriting their grandfather's wealth has made Alexander and Troutman two of Florida's richest lawmakers. According to 2005 financial disclosures, Alexander's net worth is $5.6-million and Troutman's is $15.7-million.

Yet these are uncertain times for Alico and Atlantic Blue Group.

Increased foreign competition, hurricanes and canker have cast a pall over agribusiness. Meanwhile, land-owning counterparts in coastal counties have made fortunes selling their ranches and farms to developers.

Atlantic Blue Group tried to get into the development game last year. It marketed 9,000 acres of Blue Head Ranch and one of its citrus groves for $100-million.

An ad called the property a "great development opportunity." It didn't sell, however, and the land is now off the market.

"Development is not uncommon for the land-owning companies in central and southwestern Florida," Alexander said. "Anemic returns in citrus and diseases - all of us have had to look at our holdings differently."

Alico predicts such a profitable future in development that last year it changed its mission from agribusiness to land management.

"This is a very significant change for the company, and one which recognizes the importance of real estate and land development," John R. Alexander wrote to shareholders in December, adding that it positions Alico "to take advantage of future development opportunities expected to have a positive impact on company land."

At Alico's annual shareholders meeting, its president promised an aggressive development plan in the coming year, the News-Press in southwest Florida reported on Jan. 20.

"No longer is development just going to happen," said president Dan Gunter. "We are going to make it happen."

But Alico officials warned shareholders this new path is fraught with the unknown. In a report to the SEC last year, it listed eight factors that it couldn't control that can delay or speed development, including interest rates, economic conditions, zoning - and roads.

Times staff writers Craig Pittman and Steve Bousquet and researchers John Martin and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3402.

[Last modified March 3, 2007, 17:33:13]


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