by Homer Jack Moore
For background on the now-approved Dollar General in Micanopy, visit www.gainesvilleiguana.org and search for “Dollar General.”
On Sept. 9, Stewart, a Native American and a member of the Florida Indigenous Alliance, gave wise counsel at a recent meeting of the Alachua Board of County Commissioners on a matter pertaining to a proposed Dollar General convenience store at a scenic gateway to the town adjacent to the Micanopy Native American Heritage Preserve. “No matter how much you polish a piece of excrement,” he explained, “a piece of excrement’s gonna be a piece of excrement.”
Then turning toward Matt Cason, president of the Gainesville Concept Companies, a development firm that plans to build the Dollar General, and leaving no doubt for the commissioners about whom he was speaking, Stewart continued, “A piece of excrement stood in front of y’all and said, ‘No matter what y’all do, no matter what anyone does, my money says everything.’”
Stewart’s indictment of Cason was prescient. Contrary to the will of the county commissioners, and notwithstanding the overwhelming opposition in Micanopy to the Dollar General development project, and in spite of six hours of public testimony clearly showing that the development plan was based on phony information provided to the Alachua Growth Management Department, and that it failed to conform to Alachua’s Comprehensive Plan and Uniform Land Development Code in many ways, the Development Review Committee, being an unelected and unaccountable panel of mid-level county employees, then with essentially no further discussion voted unanimously to approve the Dollar General.
Yes, money says everything. It’s power. And its influence is present inside the government at multiple levels. That’s why it’s possible for a developer like Concept Companies, that doesn’t even own the land, to come in and logroll a small historic community as well as the entire county, and put in a Dollar General convenience store where it’s not wanted.
It begins innocently enough with the fact that the developer is in the business and understands the process. But the citizens are just folks who have a job and a life, and are just trying to get by. The developer has the money to hire the necessary attorneys, engineers, and consultants. They work for him, and their work products are necessarily compatible with his needs. Would Concept Companies hire a consultant to say the land is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, or that it is habitat to threatened species? On the contrary.
Then, the county’s Growth Management Department is co-opted by the developer. In effect it also becomes the developer’s hireling. After payment of a fee, county staff reviews the development plan and informs the developer of changes needed for it to pass muster. After several rounds of back-and-forth, the developer makes the modifications that staff deems necessary, and voilà, staff recommends approval of the plan to the Development Review Committee. Growth Management was paid by Concept Companies; then Growth Management assisted Concept Companies in bringing the development plan to fruition. Never mind that the larger share of Growth Management staff salaries come from the taxpayer.
Meanwhile the affected community does not have the resources to hire attorneys, engineers, and consultants. Micanopy in particular is not an affluent community. Residents are not well informed about the process because it was never in their line of work to begin with. And even if they were, they do not have the financial wherewithal to fight back.
The more sinister part of the developer’s money advantage is influence inside government. Potentially it goes as far as out-and-out bribery, but it doesn›t have to. Money buys relationships
In the case of the Micanopy Dollar General project, the first instance of insider influence to become apparent was at the state level. As part of the development review process, Concept Companies was required to submit a Cultural Resources Assessment Survey to define any and all archeological or historical factors potentially affecting the property. For this purpose Concept Companies hired Dr. Lucy Wayne who styles herself as an archeologist and operates a Gainesville consulting firm called SouthArc. Dr. Wayne produced an impressive looking monograph full of maps and technical jargon that basically concluded, “nothing-to-see-here.” Who would have guessed.
Unfortunately, Dr. Wayne omitted a critical historical event that did occur on the property, namely, the 1836 Battle of Micanopy of the Second Seminole War. That was an oversight that would not have escaped the attention of anybody with even a particle of interest who might, for example, have visited the kiosk at the adjacent Micanopy Native American Heritage Preserve. Dr. Wayne’s shoddy work was taken to task by some real historians, namely, Professor Chris Monaco, author of The Second Seminole War, and Gary Ellis, CEO of the nonprofit Gulf Archeology Research Institute. These two had extensively researched the location of Fort Defiance in Micanopy that was the epicenter of that conflict.
So Dr. Wayne had to submit a revised Cultural Resources Assessment Survey. It was sent up to Tallahassee for review by Florida’s Division of Historical Resources. Jason Aldridge, the Deputy Historic Preservation Officer, responded that the Battle of Micanopy was, indeed, a significant historic event. Thus, the battlefield would potentially be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Bye-bye, Dollar General.
In an apparent panic Dr. Wayne responded in a long letter to Mr. Aldridge explaining why it could not possibly be the case that the property was NRHP eligible. Then she made several follow-up phone calls. But Aldridge was out of the office.
Strangely, out of nowhere, a St. Augustine attorney named Douglas Burnett parachuted in, having never been seen before, nor ever heard from again. Attorney Burnett’s special qualification, it would seem, was that he was on a first-name basis with Aldridge’s boss. That would be Timothy Parsons, the State Historic Preservation Officer. Burnett sent Parsons an email. “Tim,” he said, “We really need this signed off so we can proceed with our development plans….”
Within two hours Parsons replied back countermanding his own Deputy. “I already knew,” said Parsons, “…the battle may have taken place in this location, [but] the area doesn’t retain integrity such that it is eligible for the National Register.” Case closed.
It would be interesting to know what Attorney Burnett’s fee was for his little email to his pal Mr. Parsons.
How could such a thing happen? Well, presumably Mr. Parsons likes his job. And presumably he would like to keep it. And his boss happens to be a Republican governor.
It turns out that the CEO of Concept Companies is a man named Brian Crawford. It turns out that Crawford’s father-in-law is a man named Avery Roberts. Roberts is a multimillionaire and a big Republican donor. It turns out that Avery’s daughter Amber, Crawford’s wife, is a Lake Butler realtor who flips the Dollar Generals her husband builds. Investors buy the buildings and then harvest the lease income from Dollar General over a number of years. On the flip, Amber and her husband collect additional transaction fees above and beyond the profit made on the development. To suppose that none of these relationships matter would be to willfully ignore them.
Then a second instance of inside influence surfaced, this time at the county level. The Development Review Committee met in December 2020 to consider the Dollar General preliminary development plan. That meeting was originally scheduled earlier in the month but was cancelled and rescheduled ostensibly because it had not been properly advertised in Gainesville Sun legal notices. But as a strange coincidence, the delay enabled a newly appointed member of the Development Review Committee to appear and participate. That new member was Beth Dodd, an employee of the Public Works Department. Ms. Dodd, it turns out, was newly hired by the county. Her previous employer was CHW, Inc., the principal engineering firm retained by Concept Companies for the Micanopy Dollar General development.
Ms. Dodd was a bit careless when she arrived for the December committee meeting. It is reported that she was carrying a CHW coffee mug of her recent former employer. She was overheard to say to Christine Berish, an employee of Growth Management, that she [Dodd] ought to put the mug out of sight, or words to that effect. To this Ms. Berish replied, “Oh, it’s okay, you’re one of us now.”
It is absolutely clear that Dodd was conflicted. And she knew it, and thought to conceal it.
After the staff presentation of the preliminary development plan, and following further discussion, Forrest Eddleton, Dodd’s counterpart on the December committee, moved to disapprove. But with her former boss sitting in the room, Dodd sat silent. In a committee of three, Dodd was the only one who might have offered a second, even for the sake of further discussion. So Eddleton’s motion died. Ivy Bell, the committee chairperson, passed the gavel to Mr. Eddleton effectively taking him out. Then Dodd and Bell got together and concocted a motion to approve with conditions that passed on a 2-to-1 vote (Dodd and Bell).
This overt conflict did not go without protest from the community. Missy Daniels, director of the Growth Management Department, asserted that there was actually never really any conflict. What else would she say? Evidently we in Micanopy are not supposed to believe our own eyes and ears.
So now, at the second Development Review hearing this September, with the panel once again consisting of unelected and unaccountable county employees, Concept Companies got its go-ahead. After six hours of public testimony, and testimony of competent authorities retained at considerable expense by Micanopy residents, the committee concluded with no further discussion by unanimously approving the Dollar General development plan.
You have to wonder. Did the developer have inside influence this time, too?
Inside influence is like dog shit. You don’t see it. But when you step in it, you can sure smell it.