TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) - Jackson County officials hope to revitalize their community’s economy and image through restoration of land that for more than a century housed what became a notorious state reform school.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday approved proposals to transfer state-owned property at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna to Jackson County.
Clint Pate, chairman of the Jackson County Commission, said the county is prepared to move government offices into the site, while working to attract private businesses to the land north of Interstate 10.
“What’s happened before, it’s kind of given a dark cloud to the county,” Pate said. “But we’re going to do what we’re supposed to and try to create new jobs.”
In 2017, the Florida Senate and House passed resolutions formally apologizing for the abuse of juveniles sent to Dozier and a related facility in Okeechobee.
The resolutions acknowledged that treatment of boys sent to the facilities was cruel, unjust and "a violation of human decency." More than 500 former students have alleged brutal beatings, mental abuse and sexual abuse at the Dozier school, which closed in 2011 after 111 years of operation.
Tuesday’s action by Scott and the Cabinet --- Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis --- was an outgrowth of a 2017 state law that accompanied the apologies.
The law required the state to turn over about 360 acres, containing the Dozier site’s North Campus, South Campus and Boot Hill Cemetery, to Jackson County. The law required memorializing the cemetery and what was known as the “White House” on the campus.
Scott and the Cabinet also approved the transfer, at no cost, of another 919 acres that the county wants for economic-development efforts.
Former state Rep. Marti Coley, a Marianna Republican, said Tuesday it is essential to have local control of the land, which stands as a gateway to the Northwest Florida community.
“It’s been a difficult thing for the community,” Coley said. “To have this back under local control and to look at repurposing that property to bring jobs to the community is very, very crucial.”
In October, Scott awarded Jackson County $5.8 million from the state’s Job Growth Grant Fund to redevelop the Dozier campus into a regional distribution and manufacturing center. The state money also will be used for a center that will provide vocational and academic education for young people with autism.
“There are a whole lot of possibilities there, when you start bringing in companies,” Pate said. “There will be restaurants and filling stations.”
Also, Tuesday, Scott and the Cabinet agreed to spent $6.4 million to purchase what is known as a “conservation easement” on nearly 20,000 acres of timber land near the Suwannee River and Gulf of Mexico in Dixie County.
Under a conservation easement, the land would be protected from development, but the owner, Lyme Cross City Forest Company, LLC, would be able to continue timber operations.
In making the deal, the state is banking on a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. The foundation received $2.544 billion in 2013 as part of federal plea agreements with BP and Transocean stemming from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.
The grant is expected to cover all but $1 million of the state’s cost of the Dixie County deal, according to information provided to the Cabinet.