Florida’s Slumping Economy Scales Back Everglades Deal

Published August 23, 2010

The state of Florida’s plan to buy property from U.S. Sugar Corporation and use it to restore the Everglades is being scaled back because of the state’s growing budget woes.

Two years ago, when South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and Gov. Charlie Crist (I) first announced the idea, the plan was for the state to buy U.S. Sugar in its entirety for $1.75 billion and then shut down operations after six years, notes Judy Sanchez, director of corporate communications for U.S. Sugar.

Since then, economic realities have forced the state repeatedly to scale back the scope and pricetag of the proposed purchase.

Doubts About Prospects
After the initial $1.75 billion plan, “It went first to a real-estate-only purchase of 180,000 acres for $1.34 billion, then changed to phased purchases of an initial 73,000 acre purchase for $536 million with an option to acquire the remaining 107,000 acres,” Sanchez said. “Now, [it is] scaled down to an initial purchase of 27,000 acres for $197 million, with an option to acquire the remaining land when the economy improves.”

Whether the state will ever exercise its option is debatable. Sanchez says it is feasible, and even probable, but Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, says otherwise.

“It is possible,” Draper said. “There is an option for the state to buy more land. But I don’t think it’s likely at all.”

Sweetheart Bailout Alleged
The land deal has been marred by accusations of special interest dealings between U.S. Sugar and Crist.

The Palm Beach Post reported on August 11 that U.S. Sugar’s rival, Florida Crystals, “alleged that the $1.75 billion buyout, including U.S. Sugar’s mill, railroad and citrus processing plant, was a sweetheart bailout.” U.S. Sugar was $550 million in debt at the time, but the company funneled political contribution dollars to Crist, according to an August 13 New York Times report.

Future Restoration Plans
What will happen after are several water improvement activities on the land, Draper said.

“This scaled-down plan will focus not on water storage but on water quality improvements. We’ve had a 20-year problem with water runoff, … and one of the strategies is to build storm water treatment areas,” Draper said. “There have been six built so far.”

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from Northern Virginia.