Florida’s Governor Joined Roster of Speakers Covering Array of Statewide Issues Like Transportation, Water Management, Hemp and Politics
LAKELAND, FL, March 2, 2020 — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Lakeland on Friday, Feb. 28, to speak at the 2020 Lay of the Land Conference hosted by SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
DeSantis pointed out some indicators that Florida is economically strong, including the state’s low unemployment rate of approximately 3 percent. He added that Florida’s state budget is about half that of New York state even though Florida has a higher population.
The governor spent several minutes declaring that a college degree is no longer essential to achieve financial success. He said some with a high school diploma and a skill like welding will make more money than “the bottom half” of those with college degrees, and without incurring student debt. “Nobody’s better because they get a 4-year degree,” he declared.
Related to his efforts to strengthen Florida’s ecology and conservation efforts, DeSantis spoke about water management efforts, particularly in the Everglades, and the state’s land purchases.
Regarding the 2020 election, the governor predicted a tight race. “I think this election (for United States president) will be a dogfight,” meaning it will be “very competitive,” DeSantis told those attending the conference.
DeSantis drew laughs when he said he and his wife will soon have another child, their third aged 3 or younger. “We go from man-to-man to zone defense,” he quipped.
TUMBLING STOCKS, CORONAVIROUS DON’T DAMPEN LANDOWNER SPIRITS
Even as coronavirus continued to spread worldwide and stock markets tumbled, those attending the 2020 Lay of the Land Florida Land Conference got good vibes about their land investments. Approximately 250 landowners, developers and others attended to hear speakers, attend breakout sessions and receive the 2019 Lay of the Land Market Report which features verified sales data on numerous categories of land in Florida.
SVN International Corp. President Kevin Maggiacomo said commercial real estate could actually strengthen as a result of the coronavirus and stock market ills. Real estate might be preferred over some other investments because it’s a “tangible” investment, he explained.
Dean Saunders, founder and managing director of SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler, said Florida’s strong population growth keeps land demand high. “I don’t see any headwinds” to the state’s strong land market, he said.
For most people, the coronavirus “is serious, but not deadly,” said Mark Vitner, economist with Wells Fargo Securities. Regarding the huge drop in stock markets immediately before and during the conference, he said, “Investors are pricing in the worst possible scenario” from coronavirus. He conceded that coronavirus and production cuts for Boeing’s 737 MAX airplanes “create some near-term risks.”
Among numerous economic positives that Vitner cited are a recent trade agreement with China, consumer optimism about the economy and their finances, and strong home sales and job and income growth.
ALL ABOUT HEMP
Colorado land broker Kirk Goble made a wide-ranging presentation on the history and potential future of industrial hemp as an American – and Florida – crop. Hemp is now legal under federal law as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill, and its production in Florida is likely to begin soon. Industrial hemp must contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Goble, whose state has been a pioneer in the production of cannabis for both hemp and marijuana, said hemp has many potential uses. CBD is the current primary hemp product, but the plant also holds promise for use in textiles, building materials, foods, fuel, environmental remediation and much more. Among the “much more” are items made from plastic; according to Goble, “everything that can be made from plastic can be made from hemp.”
“Some will succeed; some will not,” Goble said of those producing hemp. Pitfalls he said hemp growers have suffered include bogus contracts offered by buyers and bad genetics that can result in THC levels exceeding 0.3 percent, leading to required destruction of the crop. Another downside was the recent 58 percent drop in the price hemp growers received. Goble said the price plummet was the result of a nearly 500 percent increase in hemp acreage nationwide from 2018 to 2019.
“If you’re going to be in the hemp business, you’re going to be in the compliance business” because hemp is heavily regulated by government, Goble warned. He also noted that potential hemp growers may need to self-finance, because banks generally frown on making loans for risky and heavily regulated hemp production.
“Despite all these problems, the future for this industry is very bright,” Goble concluded. He urged potential growers to “know the facts, reject the myths” about hemp production. In a question-and-answer session, Goble acknowledged that mold and mildew could be a production problem for hemp growers in Florida, which is hot and damp.
Dean Saunders pointed out that hemp is a hot topic among Florida farmers because 400,000 acres of former citrus land devastated by HLB disease have been abandoned. Growers are seeking alternative uses for that land.
The goal they have for their land was among issues addressed by four panelists representing large landholders in Florida and the United States.
Bill Calton, representing Weyerhaeuser, said his company must keep most of its land in timber production because it is an operating timber company. “We can’t sell out our own future,” he said. He said some land may be sold for development, but added that the company only buys land for timber operations, not for development.
AgReserves, a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aims “to find and invest in high-quality farms” and ranches it will hold for the long term, said Eric Jacobsen. He said land has appreciated 4-6 percent per year over many decades with lower volatility than stocks. Land has been “a good, solid, safe place” to invest and operate farms, he said.
Mallory Lykes Dimmitt of Lykes Brothers, Inc. said her family-owned company aims to preserve and grow its land operations for future generations of the family.
The Mosaic Company owns land long-term for mining, manufacturing and marketing; its Florida operations are involved in phosphate, said Bartley Arrington. He pointed out that phosphate mining will eventually end in Florida, and the company will need to conserve its reclaimed phosphate land.
Roads and other means of transportation have a huge impact on local economies, and therefore on land values. A transportation panel discussed issues concerning all of Florida as well as some specific to the Tampa Bay area.
Florida Department of Transportation chief planner Huiwei Shen and chief engineer William Watts Jr. discussed the implementation process for three major Florida roadways that are being planned. They are the Suncoast Connector, to run from Jefferson to Citrus counties; the Northern Turnpike Connector, to run from the Suncoast Connector to the Florida Turnpike northwest; and the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, to run from Polk to Collier counties. All are part of the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-Cores) Program signed into law by Gov. DeSantis in May 2019. The M-Cores website declares the program is “intended to revitalize rural communities, encourage job creation and provide regional connectivity.”
Job creation is also an important element of Tampa-area transportation initiatives discussed by Rick Homans of the Tampa Bay Partnership. Homans’ presentation included improvements to the Howard Frankland Bridge, the Westshore interchange and I-275 north of downtown Tampa. Homans also addressed expansion of the Tampa streetcar in downtown and the possibility of a train system linking Tampa Bay, Lakeland and Orlando.
ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE
“The road to the 2020 White House goes through Florida,” stated a slide shown by Marian Johnson, executive director of the Florida Chamber Political Institute. Indeed, Florida is one of the swing states that routinely plays a key role in choosing the U.S. president. Johnson recalled George Bush’s victory over Al Gore in the 2000 race, in which Bush won Florida, and therefore the presidency, by a razor-thin .01 percent of the vote.
Johnson noted there have been huge changes in the Florida electorate, which in 2019 had 4.9 million registered Democrats, 4.7 million registered Republicans and 3.7 million with no party affiliation.
Because so many new people move to Florida annually, there are always new Florida voters with little historical knowledge of the state, Johnson said. She said many Floridians who were choosing a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 didn’t know that one hopeful, Jeb Bush, was a former state governor. “These people are moving down here and they’re bringing their political views with them,” she said.
STATE RUNNING OUT OF ‘CHEAP’ WATER
Executive directors of four of the state’s water management districts described many local and regional water improvement projects that are being conducted.
Ann Shortelle of the St. Johns River Water Management District said projections indicate that water use will exceed available groundwater by 2040. But she insisted that “there is no way we’re running out of water.” Rather, she said, the state is running out of “easy-to-reach, cheap water.” Alternatives to groundwater may include the use of reclaimed water, and a heavy emphasis will be put on water conservation, she said. She added that agriculture is doing the best job “by far” of conserving water when compared to other user groups.
Agriculturists were also recognized for their conservation efforts by Hugh Thomas of the Suwannee River Water Management District. He said farmers in his district have greatly reduced water use by utilizing precision agriculture techniques, including soil moisture sensors that help them keep water in plants’ root zones.
Brian Armstrong of Southwest Florida Water Management District and Drew Bartlett of South Florida Water Management District focused on water projects in their districts.
Florida’s continuous population growth and strong job growth contribute mightily to its economic strength, reported Gary Ralston, a managing director of SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler.
Ralston reported that Florida has 6.5 percent of the United State’s 328 million population, yet recently accounted for 11 percent of the country’s building permits. He said Florida’s population growth keeps construction going strong because new residents need homes. Florida has added 2 million-plus jobs in the past 10 years and is adding jobs at a much faster rate than the U.S. as a whole, he said.