Austrian-born Canadian businessman Frank Stronach's name is not on the 18,000 acres of land that changed hands two weeks ago, but it may as well be.
When combined with other purchases, Stronach could be on his way to becoming a force in Levy County's future.
He has talked about plans to raise organic beef on "huge areas" in Florida.
"I’m planning to buy 20,000 hectares of woods in (the U.S. state of) Florida. The climate is excellent there," he told the Austria Times in March 2010.
Mike Rogers, Stronach's business manager at several of the former auto magnate's ventures, is listed as the manager on the corporate papers for Plum Springs LLC, the buyer in the $26.684 million purchase.
The two swaths of land that straddle either side of Devil's Hammock Wildlife Management Area and run south down County Road 343 were sold by Plum Creek Timber's Atlanta office.
The land joins 11,000 acres purchased by another company under Rogers' control: Sleepy Creek Lands LLC. And another 7,000-plus acres he purchased recently near Kerr Lake in Marion County.
Taxes on the Sleepy Creek properties for 2010 were paid by Adena Springs North of Aurora, Ontario, Canada, Stronach's horse breeding and racing company. The mailing address for the Plum Springs properties is the same as Adena Farms ULC in Aurora, Ontario, Canada.
While Rogers is keeping mum on plans — he did not return a phone call Tuesday — hints can be found in a land management plan for the Sleepy Creek properties filed with Levy County Property Appraiser Oz Barker and interviews with other newspapers.
Barker confirmed on Tuesday that most of the 20,000 acres is planted in timber and the plan calls for cutting the trees as they mature and converting it to pasture for cattle.
Stronach told the Toronto Mail and Globe in May that he will, in the next few years, build a processing plant for the cattle. But there is no indication the plant is planned for Levy County.
The land will need rezoning as its use changes from agriculture/forestry to agriculture — a change that would affect property tax collections. Taxes on timber land can range from $30 an acre for wetlands to $345 for land planted in premium woods. As pasture, the taxes would be $180 an acre.
At least two hunting clubs have been told to move belongings off the property. Barker said that hunting will not be allowed on the properties according to the management plan.
But the change means money is being spent to fence in the property and provide security and the promise of jobs in the cattle operation.
Stronach is a entrepreneur. He started Magna International Inc. (MI), one of the world's largest auto parts manufacturing companies in his garage in 1957. Earlier this year he left the company, taking home about $863 million in cash (U.S.) and shares. At the same time he gave up the helm of MI Developments, Inc., a real estate company.
The Stronach family's Adena Farms in Canada, Kentucky and Florida —in Marion and Levy counties— are known for breeding thoroughbred winners. There's also Magna Entertainment which owns a number of horse race tracks, including Pimlico in Baltimore, Santa Anita in California and Palm Beach in South Florida. He has also done fund-raising for the Spanish Riding School, home of the famous Lippizaner stallions.
Stronach has said in interviews in the past year that he wanted to pursue raising free-range cattle, build components for electric vehicles, build health care clinics and do research into alternative medicine.
He displays a certain swagger about business — saying he prefers being on his own to having battles with stockholders and regulators as he did with MI where he was criticized for blurring the lines between business and personal pursuits. Even his retirement package came under investigation by the Canadian securities agency. The last few months he has been steadily selling his shares in MI.
However, his take on the U.S. cattle business might offend some cowboys on this shore.
"My cattle will be kept on huge areas throughout the year. They won’t be treated with hormones. People love to eat meat. I want them to change their way of thinking," he told the Austrian weekly magazine News. "The protection and fair treatment of animals matters a lot to me. I know we are not yet civilised when I think of the way we keep animals. There’s no reason to torture an animal.
"Cattle breeding in the USA is a very negative example. Thousands of animals are kept at very small areas. They get hormones and can hardly move."
The attitude toward animals and their care is not unusual for a man who has a much lauded program for his race horses. The horses are rested, rehabilitated and placed in homes to be used for riding.