Monday, December 11, 2017
Business

As Amazon warehouse nears, some Ruskin residents upbeat

RUSKIN — Juan Juarez arrived with his family in this quiet community known for its tomatoes when he was just 2 and, once he was old enough, joined them in the fields.

He graduated to construction when the predominant crop became residential subdivisions, but there hasn't been much of that work to do around Ruskin in recent years either.

So, like others in this community of migrants, blue-collar workers and retirees, he welcomes news that online retailer Amazon appears poised to open a massive distribution center employing 1,000 people, not counting seasonal workers.

"We've never had any big corporations here," said Juarez, 34, as he unloaded clothes at the Soap Opera Laundromat on U.S. 41, the main drag through Ruskin. "Hopefully, we can get jobs there."

Boosters of the South Shore area have been crossing their fingers for months after word seeped out that Amazon and its development partners were looking at opening one of its so-called "fulfillment centers." The $200 million, 1.1-million-square foot warehouse would anchor a 1,000-acre corporate park next to Interstate 75 that has failed to attract any businesses since clearing ground at the end of the 2000s construction boom.

Amazon remained mum Friday on whether it has indeed chosen Ruskin, as well as another site in Polk County, for new distribution centers. But a developer informed the county earlier this week that the deal had been finalized, saying site work would begin immediately.

Crews were using heavy equipment Friday morning to set up a staging area for new construction on the site.

"We need jobs around here," said Ron Moore, 67, a retiree from a small town near Portland, Ore., by way of Mesa, Ariz.

"Yeah, Ruskin is dying," added his wife, Cheryl, 65. "They need something. The entire state of Florida needs something."

The Moores discovered Ruskin about three years ago as they traveled the country in a recreational vehicle. Their intent was to head to Key West after stopping here for a spell, but the people in the RV park said anything farther south gets expensive and, in the winter, space become scarce.

So now it's where they stay for several months each year when not traveling elsewhere. The scenery is pretty. There's saltwater and sunsets just a couple of miles from their RV park. Still, they find it frustrating to drive to Bradenton or Tampa to shop or visit the dentist.

"I hope they employ people here locally," said Mrs. Moore.

That remains to be seen, as the warehouse is planned for the east side of Ruskin just north of State Road 674. Its easy interstate access is sure to lure applicants who will drive a few miles from points north or south.

Bobby Fernandez, owner of Ybor Grille, was lured to Ruskin seven years ago by the promise of development. A friend had just moved to the area and spun stories of a booming town, ripe for a new restaurant.

"You gotta come to Ruskin," his friend said.

Fernandez looked around and liked what he saw. A lot of water. A lot of development. Condominiums were going up and Little Harbor, a resort at the end of Shell Point Road, was taking shape.

And then it all collapsed.

"Basically, we're stuck in time here," Fernandez said. "How could it not help? We need the industry."

Brad Elchin, 30, a student who served four years in the Army and has lived in Ruskin since he was a young child, said he's glad that Amazon appears headed to Ruskin. He's been hoping it would, believing it will encourage other companies to come, people who will hire workers and encourage small business owners to follow them.

"I mean, we've got a Wal-Mart. I guess that's cool," Elchin said. "Maybe once we get this it will attract something really big."

His sentiments were voiced frequently Friday, if not universally.

As he visited the mobile veterinarian stationed in front of the Sweetbay Supermarket on U.S. 41 around noon with his lab-chow mix Misty, Mark Davis expressed his displeasure about having new corporate neighbors. Sure, Ruskin may not have experienced crazy growth, but that's part of the charm in a state crawling with people.

He watched his own hometown in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California explode more than two decades ago, which is part of what prompted him to stay in Ruskin while visiting his grandparents 21 years ago. These days Davis, 59, watches traffic clog up on U.S. 41 and gets annoyed with the nearly hourlong drive to Tampa.

"I'm ready to move back to the mountains," he said.

Staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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