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Advanced Manufacturing

Catalyst for growth, Cecil Commerce Center attracts big names, and thousands of jobs

It’s been about two decades since the City of Jacksonville began to build up the Cecil Commerce Center on the Westside.

Now it’s becoming a hub for industrial and manufacturing businesses — along with the thousands of jobs big companies bring with them.

Just in the past few years, General Electric, now known as Baker Hughes, FedEx, Bridgestone, Wayfair, Northrop Grumman and Amazon have opened substantial operations at the site on the grounds of the former Cecil Naval Air Station.

Another Amazon fulfillment center is in the works, set to open this fall.

“If you look in the foreseeable future, you’re going to continue to see a lot of industrial space built out there,” said Kirk Wendland, executive director for economic development for the city.

The city acquired the Cecil Commerce property from the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense beginning in 1999 as the air station was shuttered. There was a total of 17,000 acres ceded to the city and Clay County with about 8,300 of those acres earmarked for economic development.

By the end of the year with the additional Amazon site, there will likely be at least 4,500 people working at the Commerce Center and more than 7,000 working in the entire Cecil complex that includes the airport facilities, Wendland said.

Slow start leads to significant expansion

Wendland said development was slow the first 10 years of city ownership because there were so many infrastructure upgrades to be made in converting a military installation to a business complex. But then after the Great Recession waned around 2012 to 2013, things started to pick up.

“That’s one thing that we’re most proud of. We’ve got some pretty big names out there at this point… . There’s a lot of household names,” Wendland said,

Compared to the business land that’s been developed so far and what could be developed, Wendland said the city has only taken advantage of 25% of that designated commercial property in the past 20 years. He foresees that growing quickly.

“It’s going to continue to grow as an industrial and manufacturing center,” Wendland said. “There could be major aviation projects that could lead to some of their suppliers” being located around the facility.

Aundra Wallace, president of JAXUSA Partnership, the business development wing of JAX Chamber, said Cecil Commerce Center has turned into a key component for the economic stability of the First Coast region.

“It has the ability to attract advanced manufacturing as well as advanced transportation and logistics companies to the region itself,” Wallace said. “It begins to give us that destination opportunity… and it allows us to be very competitive. “

It’s true the Cecil Commerce Center west of Interstate 295 isn’t as visible or as alluring as some of the corporate headquarters located in downtown Jacksonville such as VyStar Credit Union, CSX Corp. or FIS. It also lacks the visibility of some of the big corporate names on the city’s Southside along Butler Boulevard such as Florida Blue.

Still, while it may be out of sight to many First Coast residents, it’s hardly out of mind to the economic players.

Commitment from General Electric marked beginning of shift

Hillwood Development Co. real estate development firm took over the management contract of Cecil Commerce Center for the city in 2010.

The Dallas, Texas-based company started managing the site during the depths of the economic crisis and had what’s called “performance benchmarks” that called for certain levels of progress.

But as the recession dragged on, Hillwood officials exercised two options for extensions of those benchmarks in 2012 and 2013 at a cost to the firm of $500,000 for each extension. Hillwood had to pay those fees to the city because the recession caused companies to balk at locating at the center.

Dan Tatsch, an executive vice president in Hillwood’s industrial division, said it was looking pretty bleak.

“We had to either move forward with a half million-square-foot development or end our contract with the city,” Tatsch said.

Then General Electric committed to its facility at the site and the Cecil Commerce Center gained traction from there.

“Low and behold, early on in the development process [GE] comes along,” Tatsch said. “From being two years behind on our performance benchmarks to now we have built enough property to be ahead of our benchmark performance.”

Capitalizing on growth led to Wayfair’s arrival

Wallace said momentum is in the center’s corner and JAXUSA Partnership is capitalizing on the growth.

“It is a gem. It is an asset that we market any time we are on business recruiting trips,” Wallace said. “It’s already paid dividends as Amazon was one of those companies which eventually drew Wayfair. There is a return on investment by having that particular asset in our region.”

Wendland said the momentum will only build in the next two decades.

“When big manufacturers are looking for 100 acres and might have 500 jobs or more and $100 million in capital investments, we’ve got some good sites to show them now and they would be pretty significant projects,” Wendland said.

“It took a while to get the momentum going. I don’t think it will be built out within 10 years, but it might be built out within 20,” Wendland said.

Ultimately, Wallace said, the surrounding West Side community will reflect the same growth caused by the Cecil Commerce Center’s upswing.

“It will develop from an industrial workplace environment. Then you’ll have commercial retail that will serve additional residential growth in the area,” Wallace said. “That’s the prognosis I see for the Westside and the Cecil Commerce Center as a key catalyst for growth for the region.”

By Drew Dixon, The Florida Times-Union, July 14, 2021