Charlie’s sweet deal

“Does this pose make me look vice presidential?” 
Charlie Crist in the State Capitol

Charlie Crist is all over the place. He’s for offshore drilling, now that he’s no longer against, it, he’s green, green, GREEN-ish! … and he’s going to single-handedly save the Everglades. Huh?

Two sides that rarely agree on anything celebrated Tuesday a ”monumental” but still tentative $1.7 billion buyout that would put the nation’s largest sugar grower out of business in six years but fill a gaping hole in Florida’s long-stalled Everglades restoration.

The deal, expected to be final by Nov. 30, is good for the environment — the nearly 300 square miles of sugar land is ”the holy grail,” one Everglades advocate said. And it’s good for U.S. Sugar Corp., which will get $1.7 billion and six years of rent-free operations with the state as its landlord.

In return, Florida gets a chance to reinvigorate the stalled restoration of the Everglades, end years of bickering over pollution by ”Big Sugar” and — years from now — get more much-needed clean water flowing into the River of Grass.

”I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, or the people of Florida, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration,” Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday, likening the announcement to the creation of America’s first national park, Yellowstone.

Now, skeptics will say that Charlie is just covering his backside, which he has been waving in the general direction of John McCain lately, in hopes of becoming his running-mate. But the Herald says the deal has been in the works for months. Environmentalists are thrilled, though Democrats are still throwing rocks. If you’re very quiet, you can almost hear them plunking into Lake Okeechobee…

(Palm Beach Post) … Crist, a Republican, said it was “just a coincidence” that news of the state’s pending purchase of U.S. Sugar came a week after he shook a political powder keg by announcing his willingness to reexamine the federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling.

But the timing produced a mix of reactions from Democrats and environmentalists Tuesday.

House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach called Crist’s announcement “potentially historic.” The Florida Democratic Party, meanwhile, issued a news release asking whether Crist wanted to buy 300 square miles in the Everglades to open it up for drilling.

“After last week, any environmental initiative pitched by Crist now must be received with guarded skepticism,” party spokesman Mark Bubriski wrote.

Last week, Crist said he supported a plan from Republican presidential candidate John McCain to let states decide whether to lift the offshore drilling moratorium.

He said studying the Everglades for drilling is not an option.

But if he has switched positions on offshore drilling because he said it might help cut gas prices, could pressure at the pump reach such a point that drilling the Everglades would be viable?

“I’m not willing to go there,” Crist said Tuesday. “I think we took a pretty bold step last week. Let’s go one week at a time here.

Yeah, don’t go there, governor…

Back to the proposal, and the Miami Herald:

Under the proposal, U.S. Sugar would sell its 187,000 acres of sugar fields to the South Florida Water Management District but continue farming for another six years, or possibly more if both sides agree, before shutting down.

The purchase also covers 200 miles of railroad, two refineries and literally all company assests, Buker said. “It includes the half-eaten pastrami sandwich in the refrigerator.”

The district, which oversees Everglades restoration for the state, then hopes to swap tracts with other growers to create a massive swath south of Lake Okeechobee that wouldn’t necessarily recreate a natural ”flow way” to marshes but could target restoration’s two biggest problems: There isn’t water to revive the parched River of Grass, and what there is remains too polluted.

No one has drawn up specific plans yet, but a likely scenario involves massively expanding reservoirs and the 44,000 acres of treatment marshes that the state is building, at a cost of more than $1.2 billion.

Where’s the money coming from? Most of it already resides in the Water Management District, as part of what was supposed to be a 50/50 partnership with the Bush administration. Shockingly, the feds have so far failed to pay their share. Bastards.

Not everyone is impressed. Jane Bessey and Scott Hiaasen write for today’s Herald:]

For U.S. Sugar Corp., the deal with the state of Florida to relinquish an 80-year-old business and give up the world’s largest sugar mill was too sweet to rebuff.
When the sale of U.S. Sugar’s holdings to the South Florida Water Management District closes in November, the sugar and citrus company will pocket $1.75 billion to pay down debt and other obligations and to pay out about $700 million to shareholders.

But equally important, the company will also be able to operate on a rent-free basis for an estimated six years.

As part of an Everglades restoration plan, the Clewiston-headquartered company will sell 187,000 acres of land to the water management district.

Included in the sale are: a newly completed sugar mill, the largest in the world; the company’s Southern Gardens Citrus Processing Plant, the largest bulk citrus processor in the United States; and railroads and other buildings.

Property taxes will go away also.

When the sale is complete, the land will be off the tax rolls. Then the Water Management District will begin making payments to the counties with the most significant tax impact, to ease the loss of tax revenue, said Randy Smith, a district spokesman. If the price was right, the time was right, too.

Sugar prices have been recovering in recent weeks. A new five-year farm bill promises to stabilize sugar prices by setting aside any surplus sugar imports for ethanol programs.

”Right now, the outlook for the industry is more upbeat than it has been for a number of years,” said Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis for the American Sugar Alliance in Arlington, Va. Sugar is not the only concern for a company long known as Big Sugar.

Citrus prices have slumped in an industry fearful that Brazilian imports can crush state producers.

”The decision here was based upon the right circumstances at the right time,” said Robert Coker, a senior vice president at U.S. Sugar. “This was not driven by economic or environmental concerns.”

The closely held U.S. Sugar does not release financial information.

The company is controlled by foundations and the descendants of the founder, Charles Stewart Mott, who made a fortune in the auto industry and purchased the sugar grower in the 1920s.

About 35 percent of the shares are owned by current and former employees under the U.S. Sugar Employee Stock Ownership Plan.

Coker said there were some two million shares and under terms of the sale, shareholders will receive $350 per share.

Sweet!

Meanwhile, best headline of the day (so far): 

Pigs fly! Hell freezes! US Sugar sells out! (Seattle Post Intelligencencer)

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