Is the state's offer of $1.75-billion for all of U.S. Sugar Corp.'s land and assets a good price?
Most of the price is for U.S. Sugar's land, about 187,000 farm-rich acres in four South Florida counties. But the company's assets include much more.
There is the antebellum-style, red-brick corporate headquarters in Clewiston. A 5.5-acre, state-of-the-art cane sugar refinery. A sugar mill, warehouses, orange groves, packing plants, railroad lines, tractors, office furniture and computers. The state may not want all these accoutrements, but it's a package deal.
"They're acquiring us lock, stock and barrel," said U.S. Sugar's public relations director, Judy Sanchez. "It's soup to nuts. That's the only way we'd do the deal."
In Hendry County, U.S. Sugar's mill, refinery, packing plant and other equipment are valued by the property appraiser at $617-million. He said he could not provide a value for the company's 63,000 agricultural acres in Hendry.
Next door in Palm Beach County, the property appraiser puts the worth of U.S. Sugar's 100,076 acres at $395-million. Buildings and equipment add another $37-million.
In Glades County, the property appraiser said the company has 21,000 acres. In Gilchrist, U.S. Sugar has 80 acres and a citrus tree replacement farm.
The $1.75-billion price tag agreed upon by the state and U.S. Sugar isn't fixed, and state appraisers will determine the worth of the company before the deal is sealed.
Allen Zech, manager of the agricultural department for the Palm Beach appraiser, thinks the price is too high, especially because much of U.S. Sugar's property is muck land, inaccessible in the rainy season and not adaptable to many other forms of agriculture.
"If you figure the price is for the acreage, it's $9,000 or $10,000 an acre, and I think it should be more like $3,500 to $5,000 an acre. I don't know why anyone in their right mind would pay that much," Zech said.
Jeff Danter, director of Florida's Nature Conservancy office, sees it another way. Danter believes the U.S. Sugar land provides a huge, vital link that could reduce the cost of the multibillion-dollar state and federal effort to restore the Everglades, saving an ecosystem and protecting the water supply for South Florida.
"It could lower the cost of what else is going on there, and provide a benefit for both people and nature,'' Danter said. "In that case, the price could be a real bargain."