Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced a tweaked version Wednesday of the state's blockbuster plan — first unveiled earlier this summer — to buy up 181,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar to revitalize the ailing Everglades.
The deal, in its final negotiations, is now tabbed at $1.34 billion, down from the original $1.75 billion projected.
The state now plans to buy only U.S. Sugar's real estate in South Florida and not the company's assets, such as the office buildings, railroad line, equipment and citrus processing plant that effectively trim $410 million off the agreement for taxpayers in a bleak economy.
U.S. Sugar will continue to operate its business — and provide jobs for roughly 1,700 people in the town of Clewiston who feared layoffs - over the next seven years as it leases back the newly sold land from the state at $50 an acre.
"At the end of seven crops, we will either continue to operate the facilities or sell them based on the best interests of our shareholders," Robert Coker, U.S. Sugar's senior vice president, said in a statement Wednesday. The company could also at that time shift to a business such as ethanol production.
The state, meanwhile, will need at least the next seven years to figure out how best to use the land to engineer the restoration.
The details of the new deal won't fundamentally impact the scope of a conservation effort Crist and environmentalists hailed over the summer as historic, said David Guest, an Earthjustice attorney who has worked closely with the Everglades.
"Four hundred and ten million dollars is a lot of money," Guest said, pointing out that the change isn't a minor one. But he said the Everglades won't be getting $410 million less of a conservation benefit.
If anything, Guest is only more encouraged that the deal seems to be coming off even as the economy has taken a deep downturn since the plan was first announced in June.
"We're facing one of the greatest challenges in our economic history, and the governor manages to be pulling this out of the fire at the same time," he said. "That's an incredibly impressive feat."
For his part, Crist on Wednesday called the new deal "nothing short of miraculous."
The final contract must be approved by the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, which will technically be the new owner of the land, and U.S. Sugar's board of directors. It could then be signed in early December.