“The Heartland Parkway will allow CSX the ability to efficiently move goods throughout Florida and the Southeastern United States.”
That quotation comes from a letter Winter Haven City Manager David Greene wrote on Dec. 8, 2006 to then FDOT secretary Denver Stutler, explaining how important the Heartland Parkway is to the CSX rail hub/ILC planned for Winter Haven. The letter urges the state to “authorize commencement of the [preliminary design and engineering] process so the Heartland Parkway can soon become reality.”
The entire letter is a marvelously straightforward statement of the relationship between the proposed Heartland Parkway and the CSX deal, which I’ve always seen as the great untold story of both issues. Between them, these two proposals call for roughly $10 billion in public spending to reorganize where and how freight and people move in Central Florida. When you look closely at the effort to build this wall of money, and at who it might benefit other than CSX, more often than not you see state Sen. JD Alexander, members and alumni of Orlando’s GrayRobinson law firm, and a consistent cast of supporting characters and property owners, who between them own many properties that surround the hub or line the proposed parkway route.
For instance, Highland Cassidy, a partner with Alexander in pushing the Heartland Parkway and in several Winter Haven-area business ventures, has spent at least $8 million since 2004 to purchase at least 200 acres of property surrounding the would-be hub site, according to Polk Property Appraiser records.
I’ve made a habit in this space of casting aspersions on Alexander’s role in all of this, often noting his purchase of Phoenix Industries in the middle of the CSX fight and his relationship to the would-be Heartland Parkway. These references are a convenient shorthand for the set of interlocking and massively complex interests, stretching from Orange County to Hendry County and beyond, that have enormous potential stakes in what happens with the CSX deal. And the least of those interests is whether 3,000 people a day get to ride a train in Orlando.
I got to thinking about this again recently when I read this discussion with Alexander from a recent story in The Ledger:
“I think SunRail is a good policy. It makes sense. But it’s not to die for, for me.” He said the most important issue for him was the relocation of a CSX hub to eastern Polk County that would bring hundreds of jobs, “and that’s done,” he said.
Though a number of news organizations have danced around this, I don’t think anyone has fully laid out why relocating the hub might be “the most important issue” to Alexander. So I’m going to take a stab at it here, using just publicly available reporting, property records, and official government correspondence. I have to warn you that this will get long, but I don’t know how else to do it. Frankly, I’m under no illusion that anybody other than my mother will read all of this piece. But I think someone ought to put it all in one place.
The best place to start, I think, lies in the first few paragraphs of “Final Frontier,” a fabulous piece of journalism from reporter Cynthia Barnett, which Florida Trend magazine published in July 2006.
In February , longtime Orlando lawyer J. Charles Gray, representing a consortium of rural landowners, sketched a suggested route for a new highway onto a road map and faxed it over to Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, the agency that builds and runs the state’s toll roads…
…Gray’s map showed Turnpike officials how they could tweak a northern branch of the proposed highway to avoid a private golf community and to end closer to a recently announced intermodal hub for transportation company CSX Corp. in Winter Haven… [Emphasis Mine]
[E-mails Lindsay Peterson and I obtained from FDOT back in my Trib days indicate that Alexander met with then Gov. Jeb Bush and DOT secretary Denver Stutler on Dec. 5, 2005 to pitch the Heartland Parkway. It's not clear if CSX came up that day.]
…The plans made public [in March 2006] by the Turnpike Enterprise followed Gray’s cartography. In fact, internal DOT and Turnpike Enterprise documents show, Gray, [Rick] Dantzler and Florida Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales citrus grower, so influenced the planning for the north-south route that they even convinced state officials to dub it the “Heartland Parkway.”
You really should read the whole thing. Using the Heartland Parkway as an object lesson, it explained how the housing/development bubble economy of 2003-2007 and the struggles of traditional agribusiness were pushing big landowners – like Alexander – into the home-growing business. It’s a valuable snapshot in time that includes many names familiar to Polk Countians.
J. Charles Gray is the Gray in GrayRobinson, the man as responsible as anyone for bringing Disney World to Orlando and USF Polytechnic to Lakeland during his long career of influential legal and development work. In 2006, Gray was the lawyer and registered agent for HEART – the Heartland Economic Agricultural and Rural Task Force – the “consortium of landowners” mentioned in Barnett’s story.
Back in 2007, I posted list of the landowning companies that made up HEART. They are a who’s who of west Central Florida Big Ag and development operations. I want to focus here on three of them: Atlantic Blue, Alico, and Highland Cassidy.
As has been widely reported, Alexander owns a controlling interest in the first two companies. The St. Pete Times delved into how Atlantic Blue and Alico stood to benefit from the Heartland Parkway in a March 2007 story titled “Who’s Driving This Road Effort: Big landowners, including a state senator, would benefit from a highway they want built.”
Follow the link to find a terrific flash map that matches the properties in question with the proposed parkway route that – remember – Gray reportedly drew. You’ll find Alexander’s Blue Head Ranch sitting dead in the middle of the swath, like a rabbit in a snake’s belly. Here are a few key graphs from the story:
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…
The key thing about both this story and “Final Frontier” is that both focused on property south of Polk County and hardly touched on the spot where the parkway would meet the hub site on SR 60, south of Winter Haven.
With that in mind, let’s revisit Winter Haven City Manager David Greene’s Dec. 2006 letter to FDOT Secretary Denver Stutler, urging him to expedite the Heartland Parkway because of the impacts of the CSX hub, of which Greene may be the single biggest booster. Sorry, I only have this in hard copy. Key passages:
“This [CSX hub] project will significantly affect Intrastate and Interstate highways, as well as the City and County road network(s). The Heartland Parkway will allow CSX the ability to efficiently move goods throughout Florida and the Southeastern United States. Many of the approximate[ly] one thousand semi trucks that will enter and leave the ILC daily will be able to utilize the Parkway, which upon construction will be a more cost effective, safe, and environmentally sound way to move goods. This will significantly reduce traffic on US 27, SR 60 and US Highway 27…
“…The Heartland Parkway will be a vital link to the movement of goods and services throughout Florida and the Southeastern United States. The proposed CSX Integrated Logistics Center is very important to the future of Winter Haven, Polk County, Central Florida and the State of Florida.”
Got that? They’re a package. One helps justify the other. Everyone I ever talked to about the hub, on whatever side, agreed that the existing road network surrounding the hub was inadequate for its long-term traffic impacts. Now, how might you solve that problem?
Alexander himself sounded this theme when I interviewed him in April 2007, back when he would talk to me. I asked him if he was worried about the CSX road impacts, and he answered: “Sure I’m worried, but I have to look at what’s happening. The CSX thing is a reality. It’s going to spur economic development. The county really doesn’t have a choice but to improve our infrastructure.”
More technically, the 2035 traffic projection map Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise produced for the Heartland Parkway route pegs the currently rural hub section of the route as easily the busiest section not directly tied to I-4 by 2035. It’s seen as far busier than where the new highway would meet the Polk Parkway in heavily populated suburban South Lakeland. That would seem absurd if planners weren’t already projecting hub traffic, before the hub even exists.
People tend to think that Gov. Charlie Crist killed the Heartland Parkway in spring of 2007. Not true. The portion that would link the Polk Parkway, the hub, and I-4 is being studied right now. What’s gone is the PR campaign. HEART’s extensive website as been swallowed by GoDaddy, and I couldn’t find a link to the 2035 traffic study map I mentioned above anywhere online. It used to be a quick Google search. (I printed a copy back in the day.)
Anyway, it is true that this so-called “Central Polk Parkway” section does not include the north-south route that would run through Alexander’s property south of Polk and provided much of the highway’s controversy. But supporters always planned to start with the central Polk portion and move south from there. And the CSX hub traffic would greatly enhance the case for the road in Polk. Even I would admit it makes sense to build the Central Polk Parkway if the hub comes to fruition.
Which leads us back to the question of conflict. In the “Who’s Driving This Road Effort?” story, the SPT writes:
About the same time, Alexander said, he asked the Senate’s general counsel whether he had a conflict [related to the parkway]. He said he was told if he avoided discussions with government decisionmakers on a subject that affects him financially, he had no conflict.
The Hub, Highland Cassidy, and Phoenix
Here’s where Highland Cassidy , Alexander’s HEART partner, comes in.
The well-known Polk development company is actually a sort of joint venture of two other well-known Polk development companies: Cassidy Properties (owned by Winter Haven’s prominent Cassidy family) and Highland Equities (owned by Robert and Joel Adams).
By my count, Highland Cassidy owns at least 220 acres of land surrounding the hub site. All of it has been purchased since 2004 at what looks like a total cost of more than $8 million. That does not count the additional 22 acres that an entity called Winter Haven Investment I LLC purchased from Gerald Bowen and former state legislator Marty Bowen on March 15, 2008 for $1.3 million. The managers of that entity are listed as Robert Adams and Albert Cassidy It has since changed its name to Winter Haven Development LLC.
The Polk Property Appraiser web site is a little tricky to decipher, with some of the sales figures seeming to overlap parcels. So I encourage you to check my reporting and math for yourself. Here are the relevant parcel numbers I could identify: Highland Cassidy: 262915000000012030, 262915000000022010, 262922000000011010, 262923000000033010, 262921690500020600. Winter Haven Investment I: 262915000000012090. These two entities own most, though not all, of the undeveloped property shown in the map below. The rail line for the hub is in the southwest corner of the map. Some of the property is off this map, which I’ve provided just for orientation.
Bottom line: Business partners with JD Alexander have more than $9 million invested in 242 acres of land surrounding the hub site. I do not allege that Alexander is a partner in these hub properties. I have no evidence of that. But CSX has told Tom Palmer that the timeline of constructing the hub “will depend on whether the commuter rail legislation, which includes some funding to move some equipment to the Winter Haven facility from the current facility in Orange County, passes.”
CSX told the Tampa Tribune recently that it “will build the hub within the next five years even if the commuter rail deal fails.” Five years? Now that’s a number I hadn’t heard before. Think all that money Highland Cassidy spent on hub property might start getting heavy in this economy if it has to wait a few years for the hub?
It’s important to remember that the deal includes $23 million for “relocation” of the Taft Yard hub in Orlando to the Winter Haven site. No one I know, myself included, has been able to get FDOT to define “relocation” clearly. But the state’s announcements indicate that the money will save CSX some hub-related cost. It’s about a quarter of the $100 million price tag CSX has assigned to building the hub. Alexander has worked for and voted for this deal, particularly the hub part. One could reasonably ask if it’s in Alexander’s best interest for his business partners to receive a healthy return on their investments near the hub and if the hub’s quick construction would help. And will that relocation money he’s voting for help ensure that. I don’t know, but I think it’s a reasonable question. And for any reporters out there, keep an eye on that $23 million even if the CSX deal goes down.
And then there’s Phoenix Industries, which Alexander’s Atlantic Blue bought in very early 2008. The warehousing and distribution company sports CSX’s logo on its homepage and boasts of “unique dedicated service offerings with CSX and Union Pacific Distribution Services.” It’s an “approved transloader” for CSX and owns a warehouse a mile or two up the rail line from the hub site.
He said that Phoenix does less than two percent of its business with CSX and he requested an opinion from the Senate lawyer before the 2007 purchase to make sure there would be no conflicts of interest.
“For me to be muzzled by unfounded allegations and not advocate for the jobs that will help the people in my district would be a much greater wrong,” he said
Maybe Alexander could make some of these legal opinions public?
Anyway, because it’s a fool’s game to argue with a company about its operations, I can’t confirm or refute that incredibly vague “less than two percent of its business” line. Phoenix doesn’t talk about its revenue. But assume for a moment that two percent of general revenue comes from CSX business. Phoenix employs more than 60 people, and I would guess that $20 million per year in revenue is a pretty conservative estimate. Two percent of that is $400,000. That’s not trivial, at least not for a schlub like me. And does anybody think that number is going down if the deal goes through?
Remember what the SPT reported in its Heartland Parkway story:
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.
A stone’s throw from Highland Cassidy’s hub properties, along SR 60, we come to our next chapter and ask this question:
What would it be like to own oodles of acres of undeveloped agricultural land at the very spot where an existing highway, a major rail distribution hub, and a major tollway are projected to meet? Ask the Stokes family.
CSX, in at least two separate transactions, has already paid a total of $1.2 million to Robert G. Stokes, Jeffrey Stokes, and Stokes Groves for the land with which to build the access road from SR 60 to the hub site. Again, here are the parcel numbers: 262927000000044010 and 262934000000033030.
Robert G. Stokes is a former Polk circuit judge who works for GrayRobinson. A Jan. 2007 profile in InTheField magazine says he joined GrayRobinson in 1995, but I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s more likely he worked with Lane Trohn in Lakeland until GrayRobinson absorbed it circa 2002.
The article is cute, waxing on about how “Robert and his family have always valued this beautiful piece of old Florida, but he realized then how important it was to other people, especially in times of so many developments.”
Winter Haven City commissioners gave preliminary approval Monday night to develop 676 acres near the planned CSX rail facility with a mix of residential, commercial and industrial uses.
The property owned by Stokes Groves Inc. is north and south of State Road 60 and east of County Road 655A. It is now woodlands, pasture, groves and wetlands.
City officials said that within five years, 93 residential units, 100,000 square feet of retail, 65,000 square feet of office space and 500,000 of industrial space are planned. The rest of property will be developed over 20 years.
Whatever. It’s the Stokes’ land. Good for them.
But the whole thing is emblematic of how GrayRobinson people just keep showing up everywhere in the CSX/Heartland Parkway axis.
Obviously, Gray established HEART for Alexander and friends and apparently drew the Parkway route, as I’ve mentioned. I am told by a source I trust implicitly, who was there, that it was Gray who last year put Gov. Charlie Crist on the spot during a meeting in Tally with Orlando-area business and civic types by asking for and receiving a public statement of support for the CSX deal.
Gray also appeared with Crist, Alexander, and a few other folks last legislative session to announce Crist’s support for USF Polytechnic. Gray represented the landowner of the property in question — the Williams Company. But that’s a whole other story, as they say.
But it’s Gray’s partner, Fred Leonhardt, who gets much of the credit for pushing the deal on behalf of his lobbying clients, which include the city of Orlando, the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (LYNX), Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, and Floridians For Better Transportation.
Leonhardt’s Florida Chamber of Commerce bio identifies him as “the lead lawyer for the 55 West Condominium project in downtown Orlando.” I don’t know if that’s still the case. The troubled project appears to be the latest reincarnation of the once-famed Church Street Station complex. For what it’s worth, SunRail includes a Church Street Station stop on its line.
Lakeland native and future House Speaker Dean Cannon, the driving force for the CSX deal in the House, worked for GrayRobinson until 2007.
And last week, during a contentious committee hearing over the CSX deal, the parliamentary tactics of Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami on behalf of the deal left Sen. Paula Dockery fuming. And why might this south Floridian maneuver on behalf of an Orlando-area priority? Who knows? But it’s worth noting that his brother, Renier, is a lobbyist and lawyer working for GrayRobinson’s Miami office.
I’m sure there are other GrayRobinson connections I’m missing, but you get the picture. Look, I’ve got no problem with effective advocacy and skillful use of power. That’s what clients pay for. When that machine works for you, it’s great. See USFP. When it works against you, not so much. But at some point, just as a matter of general civic principle, it would be nice if I could tell the difference between my government and a law firm.
Yes, yes, I know, my God, he’s finally almost done. Sorry.
I started this off by talking about “a set of interlocking and massively complex interests” that have major stakes in this logistical reshuffling of Central Florida. I hope I’ve at least provided a comprehensible description of what I perceive them to be.
A couple of caveats: obviously, macroeconomic conditions are vastly different now than they were when all this began to play out in 2005 or so. I don’t know what ultimate impact that has, but it’s certainly likely to have some. I think the downturn has already made the CSX deal a much harder sell than it otherwise would be. That being said, every deal I’ve addressed here remains alive.
Also, it’s important for me to note that most of what I reported here is easily available online. Indeed, much of it has already been reported by other news organizations. Other elements come from public records that are a little harder to find, but still available. It’s hard to allege conspiracies when so much of this happened in broad daylight. It takes a certain size of stones for a sitting state senator to announce, in the middle of a heated legislative debate over CSX in which that senator taken CSX’s side, that he’s purchased a big company so tied to CSX that it keeps its logo on its homepage . I don’t think anyone can accuse Alexander of going out of his way to hide things.
Rather, I’m sure he thinks he’s done nothing wrong . And maybe he hasn’t. It’s not for me to judge in any official capacity. Maybe this is just the way things are done. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me that in the last few years.
But I’m sure that’s what Ray Sansom thought, too.
PS — Anyone mentioned in this piece who wants to respond to anything in it will have free rein to do so. I will happily correct any demonstrable errors of fact.