Friday, May 25, 2018
Business

Duke Energy dashes Levy County hopes of jobs, taxes from nuclear plant

When the power company told Levy County seven years ago it wanted to build a nuclear plant, some natives on this stretch of north Florida coast didn't hesitate to dream.

The mayor of nearby Inglis, which famously banned Satan from city limits, said the tax windfall could help pave roads. In Yankeetown, rumors spread that the money would build a much-needed sewage treatment plant.

But with Duke Energy's announcement Thursday that it was pulling the plug on its proposed Levy plant, the county's long-term hopes of transformation have now been cast in doubt.

People in this county 80 miles north of Tampa had seen the flood of jobs and money a power plant brought to nearby Crystal River. When the utility announced the Levy site, a former council member of that city said, "Those people ought to be clicking their heels in joy."

Building the plant on 5,000 acres of pine forests and wetlands would have created more than 4,000 jobs, utility officials said — a boon for a county where, today, just under 15,000 are employed.

When the plant kicked online, officials expected the creation of another 2,000 jobs. In a county where the typical household made $36,000 a year, the plant promised salaries averaging more than $80,000.

Ryan Bell, the chairman of Levy's County Commission, said the plant's projected $22 million tax bill would have been "an impressive gain" for the county's budget, which last year pulled in $52 million.

Many expected all that cash and work would have spread outward, sparking new business for an area largely left out of the development boom south along U.S. 19. In 2007, a Chiefland real estate agent told the Times, "In 10 or 15 years, you won't recognize this place."

But as the plant's start-up date was pushed back eight years and the $6 billion plant's costs quadrupled, doubts over Levy's nuclear-fueled metamorphosis bloomed.

In neighboring Citrus County, where the Crystal River nuclear plant is now closed and county leaders are fighting for millions they say are owed on Duke's tax bill, property appraiser Geoffrey Greene said, "I never thought they would (build it). It's been a scam all along."

Bell, a fifth-generation Levy native, said he is still optimistic Duke will someday build something big in Levy, even if it's not during his lifetime. The plant's benefits, he said, would ripple far outside Levy's county lines.

"When you have a project that big, a facility that big, you're not just talking Levy County," Bell said.

"You become the draw card. Not only are you creating jobs for your county and other counties, you're bringing in commerce from people travelling through, gas tax revenue, money spent on local merchants. … All that money can't be quantified."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]

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