State Politics

Gov. tries again on Big Sugar land deal

By ALEX LEARY and CURTIS MORGAN

Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — After weeks of negotiations, Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to announce a smaller, cheaper Big Sugar land deal today.

With his blockbuster bid to buy out the U.S. Sugar Corp. crumbling along with the economy, the governor said Tuesday he was ready to take a third swing at a scaled-back deal of about 75,000 acres.

“My goal is to hit the sweet spot, no pun intended, and really target in on the acreage that’s important to able to be successful . . . connecting the lake to the Everglades,” the governor told reporters.

Crist provided no other specifics and his office declined to answer questions or confirm that a new agreement had been struck. U.S. Sugar executives did not return calls. The South Florida Water Management District, in line to buy the land, declined comment.

“You’ll have to wait for an announcement,” said Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey.

But several sources close to the negotiations said they expected Crist to unveil a new, dramatically downsized deal this morning, though cautioning that last-minute negotiations could push things back.

The new proposal is expected to be close to what The Miami Herald reported last week: About $500 million for 75,000 acres, trimmed from $1.34 billion for the company’s entire 180,000-acre empire of citrus groves and sugar fields.

Plans call for eventually converting the land into reservoirs and pollution treatment marshes to help the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee for decades.

The governor has already tweaked the deal once since announcing it last June, reducing the original $1.75 billion bid for the entire company to a cheaper land-only deal. But that effort also has been undermined by budget shortfalls, rising unemployment and plummeting property values and tax revenues.

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