Niagara Not Happy With Lake County

The water bottling giant Niagara has complaints with the Lake County commissioners.  This is a special report in the Orlando Sentinel by columnist Lauren Ritchie.    Continue reading for the article, or go HERE for the original report which appeared in the Sentinel on August 10, 2008.

Commissioner not to blame for Niagara’s whining

August 10, 2008|By Lauren Ritchie, Sentinel Columnist

For months, officials with Niagara Bottling LLC have been whining that Lake County commissioners begged them to come here, then kicked them to the curb at the first sign of public howling.

It is time to lay that fantasy to rest, because the primary target of the complaints is up for re-election starting Monday with early voting. People deserve to know the truth before casting a ballot.In: Niagara Not Happy With Lake County | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North FloridaIn: Niagara Not Happy With Lake County | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida

The commissioner in question is Jennifer Hill, who is seeking her third term and who serves as the commission’s representative on the board of directors of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. That’s the public-private partnership to which Lake County is paying $276,783 this year to entice new business here.

The EDC, as it’s nicknamed, brought Niagara forward under the code name of “Project Falls” and pushed for the county to pony up a package of $2.3 million in incentives for the company to build a water-bottling plant in Lake’s industrial park in Groveland.

Niagara wants to pump 177 million gallons a year of a dwindling natural resource, bottle it and sell it for a profit. The California firm’s proposal comes as taxpayers are being told that Florida’s underground water supply is vanishing and that to meet the demand, they’ll likely have to build a $500 million pipeline to get water from the St. Johns River into Central Florida.

Most residents can’t find a shred of logic in the notion of forcing them to stop watering their lawns so an out-of-state company can suck it up to make a profit. The average resident picked up on that little gap in reasoning right off and began protesting. Niagara started wailing shortly afterward.

On Nov. 5, 2007, the company’s director of operations for the Lake County project wrote commissioners: “After being heavily recruited and positively by the county for nearly two years now, we find ourselves in the midst of what appears to be some local controversy.”

Um . . . yes. Could this be a surprise, considering that Niagara was nosed out of Polk County earlier for the very same reason? This time — using a combination of nicey-nice and stern talk — the company wasn’t going away quietly.

Behind closed doors

Two Niagara representatives — Andrew Still, a lawyer, and Brian Hess, the director of operations — caucused with at least three of five county commissioners before a public meeting in mid-November.

Understand one thing: What commissioners said privately isn’t relevant to whether Niagara ever gets a permit to pump. That decision is to be made by the St. Johns River Water Management District. The only call the county got to make in this scenario was whether to award the $2.3 million of incentives — and it said no Nov. 20.

But what they say behind closed doors goes to the heart of whether they’re honorable people. And for Niagara, commissioners’ private statements might bolster their lament about being led on, then dumped. Hey, anything to generate a little sympathy for a company that has become wildly unpopular across Central Florida.

The three commissioners, Hill, Linda Stewart and Welton Cadwell, said they promised nothing during the meetings and never “courted” Niagara.

In: Niagara Not Happy With Lake County | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida

“I told them I didn’t think there was a chance in hell of them getting incentives,” Welton Cadwell, the commission chairman, said of his one short encounter with Niagara representatives.

Stewart said: “They knew where I stood from the first words out of my mouth. I could not support it.”

No hint of recruiting

This could hardly be classified as fanny-smooching and urging Niagara to come.

Asked Thursday specifically what was stated during the late October and early November meetings that led to the belief that the company was being recruited, neither Still nor Hess responded.

Instead, they referred the question to Niagara spokeswoman Honey Rand, who snapped back an e-mail suggesting a look at county records, as if the answer would be obvious to the most casual reader.

For once, a PR flak’s attempt to evade a straight answer proved valuable.

Nothing in Lake County’s file on Niagara even remotely hints that any commissioner tried to recruit Project Falls, either before or after learning it was a water-bottling plant.

What the file does show, however, is that Niagara demanded considerably more and different types of incentives than the county ever had given — not that commissioners were groveling to land the company.

It does show that county employees worked diligently to help prepare an incentive proposal for commissioners to consider, which is proper. The county isn’t paying staffers to decide who should come here and who shouldn’t. They’re supposed to be gracious to everyone, and let commissioners make the decision.  But there is another written record of what happened — it’s in the EDC, which was the lead agency handling Niagara. And the EDC is a giant roadblock.

In: Niagara Not Happy With Lake County | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North FloridaA stone wall

The quest for truth about whether any commissioners wooed Niagara, then rejected the company, was hindered by the EDC. A cheerful representative sent thanks for “reaching out” but refused access to its files, saying they weren’t public record.

That agency wouldn’t even lay its folders open to Hill — one of its own directors — who on Monday traveled to Orlando to scan them.

Rather, she said, the agency’s vice president had a “position paper” ready for her arrival. He answered her questions and occasionally let her read little snippets from various documents that he kept on his lap.

One has to chuckle at the image. What does he have there below the table? The CIA’s home-phone list of undercover spies? (Someone, please remind me why $276,783 in tax money — $1 for every man, woman and child in Lake County — is going to this group.)

Hill said she saw a memo from an EDC employee — the one who later went to work for Niagara, sparking ethical objections from Lake — describing her Sept. 26 meeting with Niagara as “negative.” And that was even before Hill learned Project Falls was a water-bottling plant.

Hill said Niagara representatives acted “squirrelly” in their initial meeting with her. They gave varying accounts of whether they had purchased the property, whether they had a confirmed source for water and how much water they would need. Hill said she was left with an uncomfortable feeling about the company.

She said she told Still and Hess the county would “crunch numbers” and get back with them. She suggested that the company wasn’t ready to make a formal incentive request and might want to work on it a little more.

“It’s very evasive but polite. You try to be professional,” Hill said.

Hess said in an e-mail late Friday, “I was very clear with Commissioner Hill regarding the Niagara business plan, the family-owned aspect, the environmentally sensitive bottles and our plans to work with Groveland.”

He said the presentation was “specific, on point and clear.”

‘It won’t be long’

Asked in three e-mails Thursday to state what the company specifically was promised and by which commissioner, Rand finally responded in an e-mail: “We have a number of documents, meeting notes and other materials. We’re presently compiling them into an easy to understand, easy to access format that will allow anyone the ability to read them and reach their own conclusions.

In: Niagara Not Happy With Lake County | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida“That project is not yet ready for release. When it is, it will be made widely available to any and everyone.

“We will let you know when it’s available. It won’t be long.”

My guess is that it will be ready approximately three days before the Aug. 26 primary election — right in that window of time when those who want to engage in dirty tricks most often release information that they consider damaging.

After nine months of yowling, it is hard to imagine that Niagara representatives do not have this proof at their fingertips, and it’s impossible to understand why they haven’t laid it open to the public earlier if it is so definitive.

It is also a shame that the company didn’t forthrightly describe its business to commissioners. Had the county known that Project Falls was a water-bottling plant, Niagara could have gotten a crystal-clear reading on whether it was welcome directly and quickly from the five folks who held the power of voting. After all, Lake commissioners had run off at least one previous water operation a couple years before.

But Niagara insisted on secrecy. It forged blindly ahead with buying a $15 million building without a vote of confidence from the county or a water permit from the St. Johns district. Whose fault is that?

At this point, voters can be comfortable casting ballots without regard to what this company has to say.

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