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A desperate place left far behind in Rick Scott’s economy

MARIANNA — The line forms early at the local food pantry.

By 8 a.m. three days a week, two dozen people are standing in the heat and humidity, swatting away gnats while they wait for bags of free beans, rice, cereal and grits. They have no jobs and not much hope, but they are grateful for any help.

Gov. Rick Scott talks endlessly about a booming economy that has added nearly 1.6 million jobs in his eight years in office, and an unemployment rate that has plummeted to 3.7 percent.

But there's another Florida that Rick Scott rarely talks about.

Jackson County, an hour west of Tallahassee, is one of three dozen counties that had fewer jobs in 2017 than it had in 2007, before the Great Recession began and three years before Scott was elected on a promise to turn around the state economy.

It's a promise he has kept in some places and broken in others.

In his State of the State address two years ago, Scott triumphantly told the Legislature he had "completely" turned around the economy. But it's not true.

Not only has Jackson not turned around, but things have worsened in the Scott years, according to the school superintendent, a prominent retired judge and the editor of a local newspaper.

"We're dying," said Sheila Mader, managing editor of the weekly Jackson County Times and a busy chronicler of daily life in her community.

An abandoned storefront in Marianna [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
An abandoned storefront in Marianna [Steve Bousquet – Tampa Bay Times]
“The governor has done a good job of creating jobs (statewide) but we have fewer jobs now than before the recession,” said David Melvin, a seventh-generation Marianna resident who owns an engineering firm.

Jackson has lost more than 1,600 jobs, its population is smaller and more people are living in poverty today than before Scott took office.

Nearly 23 percent of county residents are in poverty, compared to a state average of 15 percent.

Median household income is $35,470, far lower than the state average of $48,900, U.S. Census data shows. Per capita annual income two years ago was $30,632, compared to a state average of $45,953, according to state economists.

Nearly all of the county's public school students (94 percent) qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

Stately old houses with sweeping porches and mom-and-pop restaurants and shops dot Marianna's main drag, U.S. 90. But boarded-up buildings and abandoned storefronts are common. The local grocery is an IGA, a brand of grocery store unlike chains such as Publix because they are operated by smaller retailers. The AM radio station went off the air years ago.

"Jackson County and its neighbors are in desperate need of economic growth," the county told the state in a recent request for state money. "Unlike other areas of the state, Jackson County's local and regional economy has not yet seen recovery from the Great Recession."

Nearly half of Florida's 67 counties had fewer jobs than a decade ago, according to a 2017 report by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Most are smaller rural communities in North and  Central Florida and around Lake Okeechobee.

Other counties include Alachua, Baker, Charlotte, Citrus, Columbia, DeSoto, Gadsden,Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Holmes, Levy and Okaloosa.

The Chamber is a pillar of the business community and a strong supporter of Scott and most Republican leaders in the state. Its Florida Scorecard has tracked the uneven pace of economic recovery across the state.

Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees jobs, said Jackson gained 105 jobs in the past year, a growth rate of 1 percent.

But the picture is bleaker, according to the United Way's study of financial hardship.

Its latest report said 44 percent of Florida households could not afford basic necessities such as food, housing and child care in 2015. In Jackson County, the figure was much higher at 58 percent, or seventh-worst among Florida's 67 counties.

In the Scott years, Florida's largest metro areas — South Florida, Tampa Bay and Orlando — have seen the most new jobs.

Scott declined a Times/Herald request to be interviewed for this report.

When asked about the worsening conditions in Florida's rural areas, Scott dismissed it as a "Democratic talking point."

"If you look at what's happened around the state, we have added 1.6 million jobs," Scott said at a recent Tampa campaign stop, repeating a staple of his election-year message. "Every county has seen a significant reduction in their unemployment rate."

That's true in Jackson County. But tell it to Violet Collier, a 21-year-old student who wants to enter the ministry, and works as a volunteer at Chipola Family Ministries, which runs what it calls a food ministry.

"People come in and they're literally on their last couple of dollars," Collier said. "It's eye-opening."

The food bank provides donated second-hand clothes, shoes and basic household items to needy residents, but the draw is the food. Last year, the program gave 359,000 pounds of food to 25,000 people — equal to half the county's population.

"It's important, because I lived on a fixed income," said Linda McCoy, 51, who gets by mainly on supplemental security income.

"My light bill is high," McCoy said. If the food bank did not exist, "I probably wouldn't have much to eat."

Linda McCoy of Marianna said she would go hungry if not for a food pantry [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
Linda McCoy of Marianna said she would go hungry if not for a food pantry [Steve Bousquet – Tampa Bay Times]
Even the food pantry has to stretch its resources. A sign outside reads: “Due to the limited amount of food, we can only provide assistance to the first 32 clients each day.”

Three mornings a week, people line up for food. No one can visit more than once a month, but people are sometimes so hungry and desperate, they try to cheat the system, said Fred Cook, the program director, a revered figure for his compassion for others as he drives the grounds in a golf cart.

Fred Cook runs Chipola Family Ministries in Marianna [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
Fred Cook runs Chipola Family Ministries in Marianna [Steve Bousquet – Tampa Bay Times]
“I understand the need,” said Cook, a 74-year-old sharecropper’s son from nearby Graceville who flew Air Force helicopters in Vietnam. “The jobs are just not here, and it’s hard to get kids back here after they go off to college because there’s not that much to do here.”

People keep leaving. As the population shrinks, Superintendent of Schools Larry Moore said, the county faces a challenge of having to shut three schools.

That could mean even fewer people with jobs in a place where farming and two state prisons are pillars of the economy.

"Not only are we not growing, we're regressing," said Woody Hatcher, a retired judge who publishes the Jackson County Times.

Hatcher is puzzled that Dothan, Ala., just across the state line and 35 miles away, keeps attracting jobs as Marianna and Jackson County stagnate.

With a population of 48,000 people, Jackson is the only county in Florida that borders two states — Georgia and Alabama.

It's a small town of strong-hearted people. When a family of four with no insurance lost their home in a recent fire, yellow flyers appeared all over town, asking to help farmer Tony and Reyna Mayo and their two boys.

Interstate-10 runs through the heart of the county. That's a transportation asset, and one reason why the Family Dollar chain has a major distribution center in Marianna, with a "Now Hiring" banner visible from the highway. Jobs there start at about $11 an hour.

During Scott's tenure, the state has sent $11 million to Jackson County for housing, site work, wells, water lines and other improvements. More than half of the money came from the federal government.

Scott earlier this month announced $1.5 million in grants to small, rural communities statewide for job creation efforts. Marianna's share was $32,000.

The state has helped with the cleanup of the shuttered grounds of a former state-run school, and Marianna recently received a $1.9 million state grant to expand the runway at the local airport.

Rural poverty is nothing new in Florida or the rest of the country, and Jackson County has been struggling for a long time.

But the difference is that Scott, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate and "jobs governor," keeps telling people how wonderful things are.

"This election is really just basic common sense," he said at a recent kickoff rally in Orlando. "If you want job growth, vote Republican. If you want job losses, vote Democrat."

Later that day, Scott acknowledged on his campaign's Twitter account that Democrats are right that some people are suffering in Florida.

Under Scott, Jackson County has lost jobs. But politically, he's likely to do well here, in a Panhandle community where many people are registered Democrat but vote Republican.

Jackson's voters will help decide whether Scott becomes their next U.S. senator or whether Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson will win a fourth term.

Jackson is a conservative place and Scott has been popular here. He got 60 percent of the vote four years ago and 52 percent in 2010, and President Donald Trump got 69 percent of the Jackson County vote two years ago.

As the county seeks a solution to its economic problems, it sees one path to progress by redeveloping a 600-acre complex known as the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, now encased in a chain-link fence.

The state-run reform school closed in 2011 after 111 years, following revelations of systemic and horrific physical abuse and neglect, sexual assaults, beatings and deaths of young boys who were sent there for minor transgressions such as truancy. Researchers found graves of 55 individuals on campus grounds.

The school, the source of so much shame, could yet be a source of Jackson County's economic revival.

In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill to transfer 332 acres from the state to the county, but it hasn't happened yet, as the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly in Tallahassee.

In July, the county asked the state for $5.9 million to rebuild the site and create a state center of excellence for young people with autism-related disorders.

"This is a chance to turn lemons into lemonade," engineer David Melvin said. "We want to match kids with jobs."

David Melvin is a seventh-generation resident of Marianna [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
David Melvin is a seventh-generation resident of Marianna [Steve Bousquet – Tampa Bay Times]
The money was requested through an a$85 million Jobs Growth Grant Fund. By law, one person decides which requests are approved: Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott faces voters in eight weeks. A desperate county awaits his answer.

Times staff writer Steve Contorno and Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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