Welcome to Polk County, circa 1985.

Back-to-back freezes had obliterated citrus, sending processors and packinghouses packing. Phosphate was nearly mined out, and 18,000 employees dwindled to 3,000. A 2,500 employee Piper Aircraft manufacturing plant was shuttered. Unemployment was 16 percent, a high in the nation.

The picture was not rosy. Too many eggs in too few baskets, say community leaders who had the collective wisdom back then to take action, quickly.

The handful who were instrumental in forming what is now the Central Florida Development Council nearly 35 years ago, and those who have carried the economic recovery torch since then, are proud of the accomplishments, evident in a diversified economy with an unemployment rate that’s less than 4 percent and growth in every region of a county bigger than the state of Delaware.

“A lot of things were happening and one day we all woke up and said: We are in serious trouble,” said Gene Engle, a Realtor and a key advocate in the early days of the CFDC.

Mark Jackson, who started the county’s sports marketing program, says the CFDC has delivered on its mission to recruit new businesses and help existing businesses expand. Both create jobs and generate tax revenue, “enhancing the lives of Polk County citizens and creating prosperity for the entire county.”

Many agree with Jackson, saying the CFDC has grown the “economy based on high-skill, high- wage sustainable businesses” — but there’s still more to do.

“To grow an economy, we have to collaborate, we have to work together,” said Steve Scruggs, head of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, which formed about the same time as the CFDC. “To effectively work together, we have to know and trust each other, you just have to build that base. We have had some success in recruiting high-skill, high-wage sustainable businesses, but we’re not there yet.”

“We have some heavy lifting to do and it’s going to take everyone working together to make it happen,” Scruggs said. “We can’t look at the current historically low unemployment rate (3.7 percent) and claim victory. Yes, we have created tens of thousands of jobs, but not enough high- skill, high-wage jobs.”

Necessity Moves the Needle

In August 1985, 300 business leaders met at the Bartow Civic Center at the behest of County Commissioner Jack Simmers to learn about the advantages of promoting local businesses and tourism. Support came quickly for a public-private partnership, and a month later, the Economic Development Council of Polk County was incorporated as a 501(c)(6). The name was changed to the Central Florida Development Council in 1990 to market Polk County’s central location in Florida. The Polk County Commission budgeted $250,000 to pay for four staff members, who devoted their time to business development and film projects.

About the same time, the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, whose Committee of 100 had focused on economic-development issues, raised about $4 million “to address a number of community issues, including economic development,” Scruggs said. “A large portion of the money was committed to a new economic development council, the LEDC, with a larger staff, budget, etc. — basically more resources to address the significant issues facing our community at the time.”

Scruggs said both organizations were needed to combat the issues Polk County faced.

Jim DeGennaro, who spent most of his 35 years as a County employee with the CFDC, says the key to success at the county level was volunteers and county staff working together. He praised Jim Brantley, the first CFDC director, who became his mentor.

“In my mind, the CFDC would not have been successful early on if it had not been for County Community Development efforts,” he says. “The Community Development program united most of the smaller communities in Polk County to work with the county. That cooperation model was used expertly by Jim Brantley — a master tightrope walker who could balance private and public interests.”

DeGennaro says the CFDC was trying to outmaneuver bigger, better-known and better-funded economic development groups in Tampa, Orlando and beyond. “We had to do everything we could to try to put Polk County on the map.”

In 1986, the Polk County International Trade Association was formed to promote export opportunities for Polk County businesses. In 1990, it earned the Presidential E Award for Export Excellence. “We got the award before Miami did,” DeGennaro said with obvious pride.

Also in 1986, residents approved a referendum that authorized the county to levy a 2 percent bed tax (a tax on room rentals of six months or less), and created the Tourist Development Council (TDC), which allocates the bed tax money. The rate has since been increased to 5 percent, which brings in about $10 million annually.

Growth Within Economic Development

In 1992, the CFDC and TDC started the sports marketing program to tap into sports and market Polk County in a new, more focused way.

“We have had some good success in this area, including recruiting the Cleveland Indians; Florida Youth Soccer Association headquarters to Lake Myrtle (the state’s largest sports governing body); Symetra Tour headquarters (now with the LPGA); Independent Softball Association headquarters; Lakeland Magic; and LEGOLAND Florida — our most-significant effort,” Jackson said.

Also in 1992, the County started the Office of Small and Minority Business Development within its Economic Development Department. A year later, the County Commission voted to allocate more money to economic development by amending its Occupational License tax ordinance. It did so again in 2001, allocating 100 percent of Occupational License tax fees to economic development.

In 2000, the CFDC signed a contract with the Polk County Workforce Development Board to create the PolkWorks Workforce 2020 program. This program’s four employees helped local companies find assistance to recruit, train and motivate employees. The partnership has been lauded for making labor and training assistance seamless through combined economic development and workforce agency resources.

Around that time, the CFDC got into political turmoil and was in the throes of major reorganization and policy issues said Mike Herr. Herr who started as county manager in 2003 believed there was still merit to the organization and a revised contract between the County and the non-profit CFDC, Inc. Board of Directors was signed and implemented. “We got a new board together and hired a new director, developed a mission statement and set goals for the first year — and then we grew it like a medium-size business.”

Now Winter Haven’s city manager, Herr was heavily involved with the not-for-profit at that time, attending meetings and providing county updates on things like road expansions and utility system updates. With the County Commission’s backing, he fought for changes that led to reductions in property taxes, the use of incentives to lure businesses to Polk County and to help keep existing businesses here, and a focus on STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) business growth.

The CFDC’s role at that time was to “provide marketing support either directly or indirectly to 17 cities for recruiting and retaining higher-paying and value-added jobs countywide.”

Going Private

Change was coming.

“By 2010, the CFDC was a public-sector organization that reported directly to the county manager,” said County Manager Jim Freeman. “The long-term strength of the organization, since its formation in the 1980s, had been the strong private-sector engagement and leadership. This public sector foundation had become a concern by 2010, resulting in significant private-sector questioning of the value proposition for their continued investment of time and money in a public organization.”

Like most businesses, the CFDC needed to change as it neared its 25-year mark, says Jerry Miller, chairman of the board from 2010 to 2012. It needed to become more inclusive and stay relevant. It needed to “look honestly at its approach (business plan) and compare it to new and emerging ideas and concepts,” says Miller, Duke Energy’s government and community relations manager.

“When the board of directors, along with Polk County officials, agreed that a new approach to recruitment and retention was needed, we sought professional advice and consulting to ensure we were building a successful organization, one that would represent the entire county with input from the business community, local government and staff.”

Not everyone was happy with the potential changes.

“I wasn’t a fan of changing the way we had it because we had a stable funding source in the occupational license piece,” Engle says. “But now that I look at it and see it’s doing very, very well, I recognize it’s good to have membership more than we had. We had it, but not as strong as it is now. It’s good to have people buy in; people have equity interest in it.”

Jim Bell became the transitional leader, a man trusted by many. Bell was a long time County director of several departments and a retired Colonel in the US Air Force. He had a longtime love for community and economic development. And thus began its transition from a public organization to a private not-for-profit. The idea was to get local businesses to become investors in the organization, and by the time David Petr started as the organization’s fourth executive director and new President/CEO.

Petr, who followed Brantley, Bill McDermott and Tom Patton as directors of the CFDC, oversaw the conversion with an open and inclusive approach and a strong performance at the helm. After three years, he left the CFDC in August 2016 to take a job in Maryland. CFDC Vice President, Sean Malott, was immediately named Petr’s successor.

In the two full years Petr was in charge, the CFDC worked with other local economic development agencies to create more than 3,100 jobs and lure $469 million in investments in new and expanded businesses, including two Amazon distribution centers.

Miller says the CFDC’s strength comes from its unique position — being able to “represent the entire county with one voice on many issues.”

It works closely with business and community leaders to target industries and push them to locate in Polk County — Nucor Steel Florida being one of the most recent in 2018. The CFDC worked with the City of Frostproof, the county and the state, among others, to lure Nucor here. Nucor plans to build a $240 million micro mill just outside the city limits of Frostproof. That plant eventually will employ 250 people making an annual average salary of $66,000.

Former County Commissioner Todd Dantzler, who is the 2018-2019 board chair, says the functionality of the board and the relationships the CFDC has with the county and other local economic development councils are its key to success. He called the recruitment of Nucor a grand slam. “But you score a lot of runs hitting singles and doubles with smaller companies you bring in.”

Miller agrees and elaborates.

“The relationship that the CFDC maintains with state organizations and contacts they make during business trips lay the groundwork for future recruitment,” such as a recent trip to the Farnborough air show to highlight Polk County and Central Florida’s growing aviation market. “So much of the work that goes on day to day is behind-the-scenes work to set the county up for successes in the future.”

Greg Littleton, president of Citizens Bank and Trust, took over as chairman of the board in 2012, a volunteer position he had assumed previously from 2004 to 2006. He says he’s proud of the work the CFDC has accomplished, and the collaborative way in which it has operated.

“It has persevered rocky political climates and many economic ups and downs,” Littleton says. “Not only has it persevered, but it has remained relevant. I firmly believe the CFDC is a better organization today than it has ever been, and it’s seen some pretty great times in its history.”

Fortune 500 companies including Amazon, Ford Motor Company, McKesson Pharmaceuticals, Lockheed Martin, GEICO, Coca Cola, UPS, Walmart, Pepperidge Farm and Sherwin Williams have all located facilities in Polk County under the CFDC’s watch. These leading companies and many others helped the CFDC and its partners secure incentive funding to assist businesses and the community. An example is County Line Road which was constructed with state road fund dollars secured to assist several businesses locating on that major highway and Interstate 4.

Much of that credit goes to past and present business leaders who have “made the CFDC what it is today.”

“From the first group who got together to try to diversify our economy to every volunteer who has given their time over the years is what has made the CDFD so successful,” he says. “I believe the CFDC will continue to thrive and grow and remain relevant. The current group of leadership is very strong and has set the CFDC on a successful path.”

A Bright Future

The people interviewed for this story were unanimous in their assessment of the CFDC’s future: It’s bright, led by a qualified staff who work collaboratively with the best interests of Polk County and Central Florida at the forefront.

“It’s got great leadership, as always,” Engle says. “We’ve been very fortunate to have that leadership, from all over the county. We are well diversified as far as participation.”

But none of it would be possible without a strong county manager, Engle says. “Jim Freeman is very strong on job creation.”

Jackson says teamwork is the key to the CFDC’s success.

“Teamwork is always based on trust and respect. We work extremely well together and respect

Jackson says. “Guiding and pursuing economic success doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a well-orchestrated strategic plan, talented human resources and teamwork to make that happen. Thanks to the County Commission, CFDC staff and Polk’s very talented business leaders, Polk County’s future promises to be very bright.”

The CFDC is well respected by clients who trust the leadership and staff, Miller said. “They know the business and have the right contacts to bring business to Polk.”

Being centrally located helps.

“Polk is a very attractive location,” Miller said. “It is geographically central to the major markets of Florida, and that drives a lot of interest in this area. The elected leaders get economic development, and they support new and expanding business.”

In the next decade or two, the CFDC can be a convener of all the various interests here, he says. “The CFDC can work to align the cities and the county for a united purpose. They can prioritize the objectives and develop a plan that engages everyone. This would allow Polk to get ahead of the growth, the constraints on infrastructure and the future limitations facing Polk as a result of the tremendous growth coming.”

As a stable, vibrant organization, the CFDC and its six employees use business knowledge, community focus and enthusiasm to grow membership, including those from outside the county, Dantzler said. “Others see the benefit of being part of economic-development changes going on in Polk County and all its cities. I think that’s a reflection on the health of our organization — the number of folks coming to us saying I want to be a part of this.”

Three organizations — Ben Hill Griffin, and Southeastern and Florida Polytechnic universities — are Visionary investors in the CFDC, the highest level. Eighty other companies from small (the likes of The Ruthvens and ACT Environmental) to large (such as Winter Haven Hospital and Publix) and municipal partners have invested, joining the CFDC and Polk County in embracing business growth.

“The most satisfying aspect is to now see the CFDC as a very focused, strategic organization that has been a leader in facilitating job creation and capital investment throughout Polk County,” Freeman said. “It is rewarding that private-sector time and financial investment in the organization is again an area of strength. It is also good to see a stronger working relationship with the community stakeholders.”

What’s next?

Herr said being a regional player and an organization with “conviction for the mission” in a county the size of most regions in the United States provides many opportunities.

“I think the CFDC’s niche is marketing and telling our economic development story over and over,” he said. The CFDC can continue to excel by being “the Big Ideas Champion for our large, medium and smaller cities or towns.”

“If a small town wants a Dollar General or a supermarket, help them to attain their economic goals. Bring your economic development partners (in the cities) together and become a champion for their goals. Help them to get where they want to be from a job growth standpoint. Pay attention to niche markets and bring them to Polk. Begin to focus on the role of technology for creating small businesses and to advocate for bridging the digital technology divide in our county,” Herr said.

Scruggs said he would like the CFDC to “focus a significant portion of its resources marketing our county and developing business leads. It just makes more sense to market our county collectively verses 17 municipalities doing it separately. If the CFDC will find and hook the big fish, we will do the job of landing them. ”

That regional approach, within and beyond Polk County into Central Florida, is critical. “We are part of one of the fastest-growing regions in the country and we must always work closely with our neighboring counties to the east and west,” Miller said. “There is great benefit to thinking locally (representing local issues and plans) but acting regionally (being an active participant in organizations that make decisions that will impact us locally).”

The CFDC heeds the advice of its investors, community leaders and other economic development councils.

“Through its long history, the CFDC has worked aggressively to improve the economic prosperity of Polk County,” Malott said. “With the help of local economic development councils, chambers, businessmen and women, and community leaders, Polk County has emerged as a place where people want to do business. It’s our job to promote Polk County as Florida’s best place for business. But we cannot rest on our laurels; we must continue to strive for more and to assist local companies that want to expand and to lure new companies here. Our future is as bright as the sunny skies overhead.”