Saturday, August 14, 2010

Florida's Everglades Purchase Keeps Shrinking

Florida's Everglades purchase has been scaled back yet again. It turns out that earlier deals of $1.75 billion for 187,000 acres and even $536 million for 72,800 acres were too good to be true. Now the state and U.S. Sugar have agreed on a new deal in which the state will pay $197 million cash for 26,800 acres.

The reductions of the land purchase reflected the changing fortunes of both Florida and U.S. Sugar:
A good solution, a better solution perhaps, according to some current and former state and federal officials with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, would have been smaller, more affordable and more inclusive of other landowners, including competing sugar companies with land better placed for restoration, and maybe even a flow-way.

Some critics of the deal contend that it should have been clear from the start that the original price tag of $1.75 billion, to be paid for with bonds, was simply too high for 2008. The financial crisis had started to unfold, and the recession was already making a mark in Florida.

But even as the collapsing economy began to make its mark on the deal, which shriveled like a dried-out flower — first to 180,000 acres, then to 73,000 and now to 26,790 — the fortunes of United States Sugar began to improve. Judy Sanchez, a company spokeswoman, told me this week that with sugar prices at record highs and a new mill that has worked out its kinks, the company has paid down $200 million of its debt since the first deal was announced.

Basically, the ideal moment when the company was at its weakest passed while Florida tried to figure out what it wanted or could afford. In the end, at Thursday’s meeting where the new $197 million purchase was approved, it was clear that United States Sugar was in the driving seat.
The new land deal consists mostly of citrus groves, which were the least profitable of U.S. Sugar's holdings in the Everglades. The citrus groves also seem the least useful of their assets for environmental projects. They are not large enough or in the right places for the state to restore the Everglades's natural flow of water. The problems with funding were certainly foreseeable in 2008. I wish that the state had used better judgment to forge a more useful purchase.