For those of you all who follow Florida politics, you are probably aware of my little obsession with a certain gas station in Live Oak, Florida. You'd be amazed how many questions or comments I get about the Busy Bee, even sometimes when I am giving a speech in public. I've joked more than once that I always dreamed of starting a movement, I just never thought it would be a movement for a gas station. I even had a friend catch me doing a CNN appearance on the TV screen in the bathroom, as if in his words, two parts of my life were colliding. So in honor of the Busy Bee just being named the #1 truck stop in America, here is how it started for me.
First, for the record: I am not an investor, and am not, nor ever have been paid by them. If the Busy Bee owners were standing in front of me, I wouldn't know who they are. OK, now that is out ot the way.
Over the last twenty years, I have put more miles on my cars driving between Tallahassee and Jacksonville/Orlando/Tampa than most Americans drive in a lifetime. I've driven it so much, I can pretty much tell you where I am just by the bumps in the road. And like fellow road warriors, I can recite with some level of accuracy the food and fuel options at every single exit.
Want ice cream? The outdoor DQ at exit 358 north of Ocala, or the truck stop at Exit 258 in Madison.
Dying for Mexican? There is a Tijuana Flats just off I-75 on Archer Road.
Starbucks? What road warrior hasn't met someone for coffee at the one just off Newberry Road.
And then there is exit 283 on I-10.
For Tallahassee road warriers, 283 is a perfect stopping spot. An hourish from home, its a chance to get that extra cup of coffee in the morning, or get a little more gas and walk around on the way home. Other than one stop in Madison and one in Live Oak, there isn't much else around here. Plus 283 has a bit of everything - a Shell and Chevron stations, McDonalds, Wendy's and Taco Bell -- or if you wanted a little healthier, a Subway down the street in that WalMart shopping center. During the Obama campaign in 2008, when I often would make the trip from my house to Tampa in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning, a Waffle House breakfast often got the week started right.
Everything at 283 is on the south side of the road. On the north side stood an old Penn Oil station, which had seemingly been closed for a while. Like all good observant drivers of I-10, it became clear in early 2014 that something was happening on that land. A new truck stop, the Busy Bee was coming.
A little background on this area. Exit 283 on I-10 is in Suwannee County. Suwannee is a rural, land-locked county, located roughly right where the Florida Panhandle begins. It is about an hour to the west of Jacksonville, an hour to the north of Gainesville and an hour to the south of Valdosta, and an hour to the east of Tallahassee. In other words, it is basically in the middle of nowhere.
Like a lot of small towns, the economy isn't great here. While the unemployment rate is respectable, since 2007 (pre-crash), despite the fact there are 5,000 more residents living here, there are roughly the same number of jobs as existed 8 years ago. As the ecnonomy evolves, like a lot of places around America, Suwannee County lives in-between places that are doing well, as it just treads water. I grew up in Illinois in an area quite like this - once thriving, today it looks just like it did when we moved in the 80s, just older and more worn out.
But what the county does have one major selling point: It is basically located at the intersection of two of America's great highways: I-10 and I-75. In fact, if you look at the Suwannee County Economic Development website, this is their number one attribute. For folks in the transportation and logistics business, it is one of those places that could make a lot of sense -- if you knew the place existed.
Back to me and the Busy Bee.
One afternoon, driving home from somewhere, I got off at 283 to get a last shot of caffeine. I decided to go north to see how the new truck stop was coming along, and lo and behold, it was open. Turns out by dumb luck, I had hit the Busy Bee on its opening day.
For those of you who haven't been, it really is quite the place. The store itself is massive, part currio store, part candy shop, part actual convenience store, the place also has two fast food restaurants and bathrooms that would give those in the lobby of any 4 or 5* hotel a run for its money. It quite literally is the nicest place within 50-70 miles along that interstate corridor.
They sell a lot of locally made products, including a wide selection of homemade beef jerky. So being a good North Florida boy, I picked up a nice selection, headed to the counter and made a comment to the guy checking me out that "this is quite a place." His response was pretty amazing - paraphrasing, he talked about being out of work, how this new truck stop was creating a ton of new jobs, how it was the "biggest thing to happen here in a long time" and how he hoped that if more people stopped there, that more people would come back. In other words, maybe the Bee would be more than a shot in the arm of the county's economy - mabe it would get people to stop and look around, and with that attention would come jobs.
I think my first tweet/facebook post called it something like "the jewel of I-10." For our partisan differences, the community of Tallahassee political road warriors is really quite close, and Twitter tends to be our most common form of communication, and it just took off. People started posting pictures of their stops on Facebook, including two sitting Members of Congress. More and more of our ilk went, and before long, the place had created a bit of a cult following. Maybe, just maybe, we were all helping the place make it.
For the travelling Florida political class, it has become our unofficial home. In a world where people in politics don't talk to eachother enough anymore, in an odd way, it has become one thing that we can all agree on. But more importantly for the Suwannee County community, that truck stop has become a destination, and today people who move goods and services around the planet recognize it as one of the finest places to stop. And for the fine people of Suwannee County, oddly, that might be the lifeline the community needs.