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Hard hit by job losses, many Levy County folks welcome jobs created by proposed nuclear plant

INGLIS — Not much has changed in this Gulf Coast town since Elvis Presley filmed Follow That Dream here 48 years ago — except that a shrinking economy dependent on fishing, shrimping and agriculture has left more people looking for work.

Jobs are a big reason most residents favor Progress Energy's plan to build the nation's first nuclear power reactors since the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee came on line in 1996 — even if it brings some environmental risk.

"There's an awful lot of hope here," said Bill Lake, the mayor of this village of 1,700 residents about 90 miles north of Tampa, where the Florida peninsula begins curving west into the Panhandle.

Levy County, population 39,000, has seen plenty of job losses in the past two years as its unemployment rate almost tripled to 12.1 percent. But there is hope that the proposed plant will ignite a lethargic economy in one of the poorest areas of Florida, where the per capita income averages less than $15,000 annually.

The North Carolina-based utility initially estimated it would have the plant online by 2016 or 2017 at a cost of $17 billion, but the date was moved to 2020.

The Levy County plant's principal contractors — the Shaw Group and Westinghouse — are holding off on adding employees while the construction application negotiates the bureaucracy. It has received the necessary approval from state regulators, but hasn't gotten federal clearance.

The delay has given the opposition more time to challenge the application. Most of it has come from outside Levy County, primarily organized environmental and anti-nuclear groups. Some said the money would be better spent on solar, wind and other alternative energy.

But not since Elvis left this area nearly a half-century ago have things created so much commotion.

Inglis' annual budget is $670,000, enough to pay for a five-person police force, but not enough for a much-needed municipal sewer system. Many of the homes are built deep into the woods off the main roads.

That tranquility will be gone once the heavy equipment and hundreds of laborers roll in when work begins on the 5,200-acre power plant site near the county's southernmost boundary. The reactors are projected to produce power for more than 1 million homes.

The cost, however, is already being passed along to Progress' 1.7 million Florida customers, with heavy concentrations in the Tampa Bay area, Orlando suburbs and the Big Bend region that includes Levy County.

Progress spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said about 3,000 workers would build the plant when construction starts, perhaps in 2012. About 800 full-time positions would be created to staff the two generators when they open.

"They hope it improves the economy, but some do have their concerns about the environment," said Luhanna Wilsey, a short-order cook at a local gas station who has lived in the area since 1973.

Her son is among those looking for permanent work.

"If they (Progress Energy) hire locally first for the unskilled labor positions it would help our economy a lot," Wilsey said.

The new plant is certain to disturb the tranquility of Levy County, where about a fifth of the land is preserved for state and national wildlife areas. They are home to thousands of nesting shorebirds, including the bald eagle and elusive roseate spoonbill.

Hard hit by job losses, many Levy County folks welcome jobs created by proposed nuclear plant 10/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 9:46pm]
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