BY DAVID LIGHTMAN/Alachua Chronicle

NEWBERRY – At their Sept. 6 regular meeting, the Newberry City Commission heard an update on the proposed F-300 AgriFoodTech Research and Innovation Park, a joint venture “startup hub” partnering with the University of Florida, and numerous other entities. 

City Manager Mike New introduced Kamal Latham, CEO of Global Solutions: “Kamal Latham, who works with us in a consulting capacity, has been spearheading our initiative to develop the Newberry AgriFoodTech Park… He probably started helping us out in November, and so we thought it would be a great opportunity to share with the commission our progress through his first year of work.”

Latham explained the origin of the F-300 name and the purpose of the project: “F (is) for Florida, and 300 represents the number of crops, specialty crops, that are grown here in Florida – because the intention of this is that this is a Florida asset that will be based in Newberry, that will benefit the citizens of Newberry and the region, the state, and beyond.

“The purpose of this is simply job creation. Job creation helps to create that economic turn, creates economic activity, and then you have more tax revenue because you have more jobs and you have more economic activity. So that’s the objective with this initiative. What is AgriFoodTech? You have Upstream and Downstream. Upstream is closer to the farmer, Downstream closer to the consumer.”

Latham added, “It will likely be that the type of companies that would be attracted to this Research and Innovation Park would be on the Upstream side of the category because a lot of businesses on the Downstream are internet-based, e-commerce, and sometimes they may not need brick-and-mortar, so when we’re talking about the AgriFoodTech Park and the types of companies and types of jobs, it would most likely be along those companies on the Upstream side of the equation.”

Latham explained, “What is Newberry’s competitive edge? Newberry’s region has the research capacity to be a competitive AgriFoodTech Hub. UF IFAS has spent $278 million on research, and overall, the University of Florida has spent $1 billion from 2021 to 2022.

“UF has one of the fastest supercomputers in the world and is the AI land grant university. That’s one of the big competitive unique selling points for Newberry and the Newberry region. Having the IFAS Extension Office was a big deal… With the leadership that we have at IFAS and the research capacity at UF, particularly with that supercomputer, it’s literally one of the fastest supercomputers on the face of the planet… IFAS has hired faculty specifically to research AI applications in agriculture, and so this is something that is an opportunity that this region can capture for high-technology and high-wage jobs.”

Latham said the F-300 project will facilitate job creation by being a hub of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced energy, and industrial efficiency tech applications in the AgriFoodTech sector: “You have jobs that will be across the spectrum for different levels, and so what this will be is the driver, and as a driver this will help to lead the economic growth, and then to be a lot of different types of jobs at different skill sets and different levels that would have come along with it.”

Latham said over 45 stakeholders have been identified since 2022, and over $75,000 in planning grants have been secured. The next steps will be to complete a feasibility study and business plan for the business incubator in 2024.  

Latham listed some of the stakeholders that have already been identified including The International Fresh Produce Association. “This is a big deal. It’s a big entity,” said Latham. “This is the international association for fresh produce, and so about 90 to 95 percent of all the fresh produce in America, produce and flowers, is touched by at least two of their members.”

Commissioner Tim Marden asked, “What’s our timeline and what’s it going to take to start turning dirt?” Latham said, “To turn dirt, that would probably be a three-to-five-year horizon. Ideally, if you have a private sector developer that would come in and be able to, you know, do development, then that could help move the project forward.”

Mayor Marlowe interjected, “I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but I think out of that meeting in November we got a private, a local private sector developer, that is interested, and we may be seeing their application to fold some land into that coming sometime soon, which would vastly elevate that timeline.” 

Commissioner Marden said he wanted to get construction moving as quickly as possible, faster than three to five years. Mayor Marlowe echoed, “We’re gonna get with that private developer, and you know, make it happen, because I agree with Commissioner Marden. We want this thing to happen, we want it to happen right now and right away.”

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