Port of Fernandina Downtown Waterfront
Historic Downtown,  Marketplace

NCEDB Pursuing Manufacturers & Major Businesses

Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace column.


It is a normal day, so Laura DiBella is running.

DiBella’s life revolves around running. She runs the Nassau County Economic Development Board (NCEDB). She runs the Port of Fernandina right now. Tirelessly, she also runs marathons in her spare time – three per year, 26.2 miles each.

And DiBella effortlessly takes it in stride. Even though she is wearing more hats than a baseball team. She draws parallels between competing in marathons and competing to bring industry to Nassau County, her ultimate role.

Determination is a prerequisite. So is relentless discipline. She has both qualities, which make her ideal for this job. “I have a lot of staying power,” she says.

What DiBella is doing is working. Her successes are tangible, like the framed medals in her office from marathons she’s done. And like the economic phenomenon unfolding across State Highway 200 from her office – a development called Wildlight.

But Wildlight is more than just a mammoth development. It will become a high-tech, state-of-the-art community. In fact, the team behind Wildlight also concocted Celebration, an idyllic village in Central Florida with a Norman Rockwell flair.

Rendering of Florida Public Utilities’ new headquarters building in Wildlight, Yulee, FL
Rendering of Florida Public Utilities’ new headquarters building in Wildlight

Wildlight will feature a delectable mix of residential, commercial and retail components. And it gets better. Rayonier Inc. has already located its headquarters there, while Florida Public Utilities just committed to the same. Literally across the road from DiBella’s office on the Florida State College campus.

Crawford Diamond

Farther down the road, the Crawford Diamond Industrial Park awaits a major manufacturer, or two. The turn-key site offers hundreds of acres for development, with proximity to two major railroad lines, two interstate highways and an assortment of shipping ports.“With a stroke of a pen, we could have thousands of jobs here,” DiBella says.

In a recent development, Florida Power & Light purchased 1,300 (of the 1,800 acres) for $13.1 million, but plenty of capacity remains.  The Crawford Diamond has the potential to change the west side of Nassau County. A major manufacturer like Toyota could come in and invest billions of dollars into a plant and create hundreds of high-paying jobs. A move like this would strengthen our economy, and the tax base.

A somewhat smaller project will have a similar impact in Fernandina Beach. The LignoTech Florida manufacturing plant will involve $135 million in capital investment while creating 50 to 70 high-paying jobs. It will be located on the Rayonier Advanced Materials property.

Already on the same property is a heat-and-power plant owned by Chesapeake Utilities, the parent of FPU. Little known to most residents, the Chesapeake plant could produce enough electricity in a blackout to operate vital functions, such as hospitals.

“It’s basically a contingency plan,” DiBella says.

Port of Fernandina

DiBella lives in downtown Fernandina Beach and frequently runs past the Port of Fernandina on her training route. “I say hello to the guards,” she says.

She describes the port as an ally and an asset that has a “very robust operation.” It is one of only 13 operating ports in the state. Ports have broad powers, such as the ability to issue bonds for infrastructure projects.

“That’s how rare and special we have it,” she says. And major manufacturers like the ones DiBella is pursuing will need shipping capabilities. As acting port director, she can learn firsthand about the shipping industry.

She is always trying to up her game. Not only is she assigned with the task of recruiting industry and major businesses, she must retain what is here. While she can foster enduring relationships with local businesses, fishing for prospective companies is filled with snags from objections and rejections.

“It keeps you hungry and on your competitive game,” she says.

DiBella likes and uses visual aids. On her wall, she has a framed map of Florida in 1891, showing a proposed railroad to Key West. She also keeps stacks of cardboard maps by her desk, within reach.

Her office has continually gotten busier. Interest in Nassau County is growing like a fledgling pine tree. “We have a consistent stream of incoming calls,” she says.

In other words, business is good. So DiBella, formally titled as executive director, needs help. And she has strong support, with a high-powered board of directors as well as Shelley Hirsch, who manages her office, and Sherri Mitchell, who cultivates relationships with existing businesses.

DiBella has worked all over Florida, mostly in commercial real estate. But even if she could have mapped out her life, she hardly imagined being in Nassau County at this time — surrounded by amenities like vast tracts of land, historic towns and lavish resorts.

“We have so much,” she says. “We really do. We are so lucky.”

“Sometimes I do have to pinch myself.”
Steve Nicklas is a financial advisor and a chartered retirement planning counselor for a major U.S. firm who lives on Amelia Island. He is also an award-winning columnist. His business columns also appear in several newspapers in North Florida and South Georgia. He has published a book of his favorite columns from the last 20 years, “All About Money.” The book is available in local stores and on Amazon. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or at [email protected].

Free Investing Class, February 2018

Steve Nicklas
Steve Nicklas

A popular investing class will be offered on Amelia Island this spring. The four-week class, “Investing in Today’s Financial Markets,” will be held at the Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce office on Tuesday evenings in February. It is the same continuing education class that has been taught by financial advisor Steve Nicklas at the Florida State College campus in Yulee since 2001.

The class will cover all aspects of the financial markets including stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs, annuities, insurance and financial/retirement planning. Sessions will be held from 6-7 p.m. on Feb. 6, 13, 20 and 27 at the Chamber office (located in the Gateway to Amelia complex). The class and materials are complimentary. For more information or to pre-register, please call Stacy Smith at 904-380-2300.