Conversations with cities who border a proposed new Central Florida Innovation District near Florida Polytechnic University makes one thing clear: They are enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“I’m very excited about it,” said Auburndale City Manager Bobby Green. “It’s one of those things that’s a great economic development opportunity for Polk County, and where that opportunity sits is where our jurisdictions all meet. If your neighbors can meet at the fence, that’s the way it should be done.”

Green’s talking about collaboration between Auburndale, Lakeland, Polk City and Polk County in creating the Central Florida Innovation District that would attract innovative and technology oriented companies. Students and professors at Florida Poly and other local higher ed institutions could help companies do research, potentially turning into jobs for students. They could use the new SunTrax development to test software and hardware components surrounding innovative technologies. SunTrax is a $42 million test track whose first phase — a 2.25-mile track to test toll technology, among other things, and two buildings — recently opened. The second phase is a $90 million infield research center. In fact, the innovation district is an opportunity for all of Polk County’s institutions of higher learning.

“We have one opportunity to do it” and get it right, Green said.

Green, Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado and Polk City City Manager Patricia Jackson, along with many others, recently traveled to North Carolina to visit Centennial Campus on the campus of North Carolina State University as part of a Central Florida Development Council Leadership Mission. Florida Poly President Randy Avent, who worked at the university before moving to Lakeland, would like to see Polk County officials emulate what occurred there, even if on a smaller scale.

“Centennial Campus’ creation was to identify a conduit for the university to tie into the needs of the corporate community,” Delgado said. “The state was instrumental in both land acquisition for the campus initiative and developing the proper legislation to solicit and entice economic development opportunities to the area.”

Green praised County Manager Jim Freeman, who suggested the CFDC be the umbrella to pull the three cities and county together and facilitate the initiative.

“The end game is we already have our planners working together, managers have all met related to this, we all went on the trip to Raleigh to see what we could have. We have to work toward those common land uses that are complementary to each other.”

Land Use: Critical Decisions

Working together — cities, Polk County, the university, businesses and land owners — is particularly critical when it comes to land-use decisions. Everyone must agree on land-use changes and interlocal agreements, and understand the vision, Green said.

“We would not want to (allow) a particular use in Auburndale that would be detrimental to plans in Lakeland,” Green said. “The fact that all of us (cities and the county) meet right there lends itself to economic development opportunities.

At North Carolina State in Raleigh, the university owned the land, making progress quick and easy. “We are dealing with private owners,” Green said. “We need to make sure they are aware we’re working toward this vision, to get them along with us, to see this could be a better opportunity for them. It’s something for the community as a whole.”

Delgado emphasized establishing the proper zoning and developing the needed infrastructure is key, as is working closely with landowners “to communicate the Innovation District vision and identify options to meet their development plans in conjunction with the long-term vision.”

The Message to Their Cities

Delgado wants Lakeland to know that the project, if developed based on the current vision, can be transformational for all of Polk County and the entire Central Florida area.

“New high-tech businesses and a partnership with the student base of the university should create new employment opportunities for the entire region and assist in soliciting new innovative business opportunities,” Delgado said.

Green wants his city to know that governments are working together to ensure the best possible plan for Polk County. “There will be good jobs, good development complementary to large public investments of SunTrax and Florida Poly.”

“The planning staffs (of the cities and county) have met multiple times since the Raleigh trip,” Green said. “We are trying to get this right, and at the same time to make it so … we know what kind of growth, research and development, apartment use, logistics will occur and how it fits, and how it fits with neighbors’ plans. This is so unique. I’m so excited about it.”

The Goal

Delgado said the most important part of the project is “strengthening the relationship between the campus and community. Secondly, and just as important, is to enhance the city’s economic development landscape to solicit worldwide opportunities and high-tech initiatives.”

For additional information about this topic or how to become a partner with the Central Florida Development Council, please contact Lindsay Zimmerman at lindsay@cfdc.org.