The detonation teams have done the spectacular work of demolishing the St. Johns River Power Park. It’s just clean-up time now at the sprawling site where convoys of dump trucks haul away mangled metal remnants of the old coal-fired plant.
Each dump truck load gets JEA closer to turning 1,200 acres back into a blank canvas for what might happen next on the Northside land. One possibility would be some kind of redevelopment that ties into JaxPort’s nearby Blount Island marine terminal, but JEA has not yet decided.
“This is almost a once in a generation opportunity for Jacksonville,” JEA interim CEO Paul McElroy said at last week’s board meeting.
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He said the next step will be to find a deep-pocketed partner by the end of the year “that has a global presence and is looking to invest a significant amount of money to help us grow this great opportunity for the highest and best use for Jacksonville.”
In about six weeks, JEA will issue a request for qualifications inviting interested entities to say what they would bring to the table.
JEA officials have talked about bringing in new development ever since a June 16, 2018, implosion attracted crowds of onlookers who lined Heckscher Drive on a Saturday morning for a view of the plant’s two tall cooling towers collapsing.
When JEA put the utility up for sale last year, a presentation to bidders pitched the St. Johns River Power Park site as a unique money-making parcel.
The presentation listed possibilities such as an import-export hub for cargo shipped through Jacksonville, as a dedicated port facility, or as as a large wholesale data center with a dedicated generation facility for the data center. The presentation said an existing permit also could make a new electric generating station a possibility for the site.
JEA canceled sales talks last December. Now it’s making its own play to bring in development.
City Council member Al Ferraro, whose district covers the site, said he hasn’t heard any proposal yet from JEA for how to use it.
“I think as far as an industrial complex, it’s a perfect location,” he said. “That’s what it’s been for decades. People expect that. I don’t think people would fight it if it was some type of industry bringing good jobs to the city.”
Mike Gretchell, chairman of the North Citizens Planning Advisory Committee, which works with the city on neighborhood-related issues, said the CPAC hasn’t taken a position yet on what it would like to see happen at the site.
Gretchell said the power park property, located off New Berlin Road, is in an area that has light-industrial activities so something along those lines would mesh with what’s already happening.
“If you put a big distribution center there, that would fit in perfectly with that area,” he said.
The St. Johns River Power Park site is north of the Blount Island terminal, on the other side of Heckscher Drive. A CSX railroad line runs from Blount Island through the heart of the JEA land, connecting both pieces of property with the national rail network.
Ferraro said the railroad line adds to the attractiveness of the site, along with its location that’s close to the port and Interstate 295.
JEA and Florida Power & Light teamed up to build St. Johns River Power Park in the early 1980s at a time when coal was the fuel of choice for power plants. The utilities closed the plant on Jan. 5, 2018, because it had become cheaper to generate electricity by using natural gas.
The closure also helped JEA right-size its generating capacity with the the usage by its customers, and it reduced the utility’s overall carbon emissions by 30 percent, according to the utility.
The agreement to put JEA in charge of demolishing the power park also said that after the site is cleared, all the property will be 100 percent owned by JEA.
While JEA’s land holdings in that area total roughly 2,000 acres, about 1,200 acres are developable. Other land is wetlands or used as landfills.
About 30 acres of the land is on Blount Island itself where the St. Johns River Coal Terminal used to take coal unloaded from ships. JaxPort spokeswoman Chelsea Kavanagh said the port authority has had discussions with JEA about that property for several years and continues to have those conversations.
She said JEA is taking the lead on how to use the St. Johns River Power Park property.
“To date, JaxPort has not had any in-depth discussions with JEA regarding the property or any proposal, and we have not developed any plans for the property,” she said. “We look forward to seeing what ideas JEA comes up with.”
JEA still might do one more demolition project by taking down a 3.2 mile elevated conveyor belt that carried coal from the Blount Island terminal to the power park. If JEA decides to dismantle the conveyor, that would happen in the fall.
Meanwhile, the final stage of clearing the site will continue through the fall as well. The site that once was the workplace for hundreds of people running the power plant is busy with heavy equipment reducing the size of debris mounds day by day, but with fewer people on the grounds. A flock of geese have made the site their home.
Larry Bradley, an engineering consultant, worked at the power park for 33 years until it stopped operating in 2018. He works for a private firm now that is assisting with the final close-out of the demolition clearance.
“It’s a little disheartening when you see your life’s work go down, but it’s been interesting to see,” he said. “It’s kind of like construction in reverse.”