North Florida Utility Contractors Unite for Charitable Project

Fri October 27, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Cronin



To some, the rumbling of bulldozers and crashing of a load of dirt into a dump truck bed is noise pollution.

But to those at the future site of the Seamark Ranch, these are the sounds of hope and a better tomorrow.

The 468-acre ranch in Jacksonville, Fla., will soon be the home to up to 96 boys and girls with nowhere else to turn.

Its founder, Keith Denton, knows a place like Seamark can do wonders for a child. At the age of 10, he was dropped off at a similar facility in Alabama. Following his graduation from college, Denton returned to the ranch to serve as development director and later as its administrator.

In 2001, he and his wife, April, began working on making Seamark Ranch a reality. In addition to 10 to 12 “traditional” homes (with up to eight children and two house parents), the campus also will include a counseling center, chapel, athletic center, barn, equestrian program and farming center. Lakes and trails will be available for recreational activities.

But before that happens, there has been plenty of work to do.

Leading the charge are members of the Utility Contractors Association of North Florida (UCANF). One of the ranch’s board members is Ryan Schmitt of A.J. Johns Inc., who also is a board member at UCANF.

The association adopted Seamark Ranch as its charity after Denton spoke to the group. Its members have been building it since late 2003. Since then, several contractors have assisted with the project: A.J. Johns Inc., All Florida Site and Utilities Inc., Blackrock Construction, E.W.P. Construction Inc., Florida Roads Contracting Inc., John Woody Inc. and Phillips and Jordan Inc.

Two dealerships, Ring Power and Industrial Tractor Company, have donated equipment.

So far, Glenn Lassiter, director of ranch and farming operations, estimates the companies have donated $1 million in services. He could not estimate the final amount, as he is not sure what material will be used to construct the ranch’s roadways.

The site, an old piece of timber company property, first had to be cleared of trees, some of which had been growing for 20 years. The land clearing was completed by crews from Phillips and Jordan, J.B. Coxwell and A.J. Johns. A significant amount of trees were left in place, including a large portion of the eastern end of the property around the Black Creek.

Lassiter said the crews have been challenged by the quality of the dirt on site. They encountered “sugar sand” at the site of the first boys’ home to be constructed, which was not stable enough to hold a structure. However, when digging out one of the lakes on site, Lassiter said crews pulled up sandy clay “that dries like concrete,” with which they constructed the building pad.

In 2004, the crews tackled clearing the 54-acre (22 ha) livestock grazing pasture in the northwest corner of the property. Approximately 75,000 cu. yds. (57,300 cu m) of dirt has been moved at the site.

The amount of the work being completed each day ebbs and flows, Lassiter said. At the peak of the lake work, he said six or seven operators were on site running an excavator and five off-road trucks. When a piece of machinery was empty, Lassiter would hop in the cab to help out.

With a crew that consists of volunteers from so many contractors, the work is usually led by the most experienced person at the site that day. And when that person leaves, someone else steps into the supervisory role. When a problem crops up, such as a piece of equipment going down, Lassiter will step in.

More often than not, he said the crews are able to take care of themselves. And he said they seem to be truly connected with the work they’re doing and keep in mind the fact that their labor will benefit children in need.

Schmitt said it’s challenging for the contractors to include the Seamark Ranch in their already busy schedules, but they do the best they can. Most are able to send two or three operators and pieces of equipment to the site at a time.

“People have really opened up their resources,” Schmitt said.

He credits Lassiter with keeping everyone on task and motivated. As a team, Schmitt said they’re producing “a tremendous accomplishment.”

At this point of the project, Lassiter said he is focusing on the structures — the only work not being competed by UCANF members. They will, however, be back on site to build the roads. Beazier Homes has completed one boys home.

As far as earthwork, the only major task left is the construction of an 8-acre (3.2 ha) lake. Lassiter is hoping to find a contractor that will dig the lake for the dirt.

While the crew mostly consists of volunteers, they are still working to meet a solid deadline. Lassiter said the staff and children are moving in during spring 2007.

Kathy Blackman, executive director of UCANF, said the association has donated its services to charities in the past, including the Baptist Home for Children and Dreams Come True (an organization with the goal of making the dreams of children with life-threatening illnesses become reality), but nothing to this scale. CEG