The pace of new commercial and residential construction in Auburndale has picked up considerably in recent months, but as robust as it is, it pales in comparison to the expectations city officials have for economic growth in the years just ahead.
City leaders are pinning those expectations on two primary economic drivers — the Lake Myrtle Sports Park off Berkley Road and the newly opened Florida Polytechnic University. The university is located within the Lakeland city limits, in very northeastern corner of those limits at the eastern Interstate 4-Polk Parkway exchange, but it’s just outside Auburndale’s utility services area and very close to Auburndale own city boundary.
“The Auburndale story lies to the north of downtown,” says city Community Development Director Amy Palmer. “Growth there in the next five, 10, 20 years will be unlike anything the city has ever seen.”
Construction prior to the opening of Florida Poly in August 2014 began with the futuristic-looking and very dominating Innovation, Science and Technology (IST) Building and one residence hall. University President Randy Avent has said that two new dorms should be ready for the 2016-17 school year to help alleviate a student housing crunch the administration already is expecting.
As with most institutions of higher learning, on-campus construction at Florida Poly will continue through the years. In the meantime, everyone in government and economic development circles is expecting a surge of construction in nearby businesses and industry centers that will serve and support the university, its staff and the thousands of students who eventually will attend school there. The commercial construction is expected to stretch east, west, and south of the university, very likely crossing into Auburndale and perhaps even spawning some new residential construction.
At the Lake Myrtle Sports Park, a baseball-soccer-lacrosse-rugby center located within the Auburndale city limits, plans for four additional ball fields are under way, Palmer says. Since 2008, the complex has been the center of activity for the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational, a multi-game spring baseball event that drew more than 200 college and high school teams, along with their fans and player relatives, to Polk County this past spring.
“RussMatt has signed another contract with the county,” Palmer says. “They are staying in Polk County, and that’s good news for us.”
With only one large hotel in Auburndale, city accommodations for RussMatt participants and followers are at a premium near the sports park, but that provides an opportunity for developers of hotels, apartment complexes, and rental units.
“We have one hotel, and we do need more rooms,” Palmer says. “We’ve needed them for some time.”
Construction of another hotel in Auburndale might just happen sooner rather than later. While she has no news to report now, Palmer says the city started to field a greater number of calls from potential hotel developers after the LEGOLAND Florida theme park in Winter Haven announced plans for its own hotel resort. That resort opened on May 15.
“More people are doing their due diligence” on hotel construction planning, Palmer says. “They’re investigating properties. They’re asking if they could fill up their hotels during the week and during the weekend.”
Addressing the need for more local accommodations, the Auburndale City Commission recently approved a developer’s request to build 69 short-term rental units directly across Berkley Road from Lake Myrtle Sports Park. The rental complex will replace a section of citrus groves owned by the Gapway Grove Corporation and will be developed over time, Palmer says.
Several commercial construction projects in Auburndale are under way now, Palmer says. On the south side of U.S. Highway 92 West, directly across from the Walmart Supercenter, construction has started on an ALDI food store and a Verizon Wireless retail store. The construction site, once the home of a dealership for manufactured housing, is just east of the Auburndale Best Western Inn & Suites, Auburndale’s lone hotel.
“There’s more acreage there,” Palmer says. “We’re hoping for a hotel and a restaurant. That would be awesome.”
On the other side of Auburndale, a Wawa convenience store/gasoline station is being built along Havendale Boulevard at Havendale Square, the site of a recently added Dollar General store. And on Main Street in downtown Auburndale, near City Hall, Lakeland Regional Health is remodeling a former podiatry office for use as a clinic that will staffed by three health-care professionals.
In addition, Palmer says, the city has seen a surge in new housing construction. Two years ago, builders pulled 50 construction permits for single-family homes; last year, 128 permits were pulled. Key areas for new homes include northeast Auburndale and land north of Lake Juliana.
“A lot of empty lots that just sat there are being gobbled up in large chunks,” she says.
In addition to her leading role in economic development for the city of Auburndale, Palmer is the city’s liaison to the Central Florida Development Council, the Polk County government’s designated organization for countywide economic development. It’s an agency Palmer knows well; she worked for the CFDC from 2006 to 2012 — after leaving a previous post with the city of Auburndale and before accepting her current job.
Auburndale is one of eight Polk County cities that have a financial investment in the CFDC, which is transitioning from a public-private agency to a privately funded one. As the voluntary chairman of the CFDC’s Small Business Assistance Center Entrepreneurial Committee, Palmer is part of the executive committee that is managing the CFDC’s privatization effort.
During her years as an employee of the CFDC, Palmer’s jobs included business retention and helping businesses with their expansion plans. She says it was through those responsibilities that she came to better understand Polk County’s industries, what resources are available to keep businesses from leaving, what the county’s economic strengths are, and what it takes for the county to be a “suitable fit” for more businesses.
“Economic development is so important for all the communities in Polk County,” Palmer says, underscoring a leading reason for Auburndale’s investment with the CFDC.
“The city has always been involved with the CFDC, and it wanted to continue to be a part of the economic development picture for Polk County,” she says. “The city sees a strength in the CFDC in project management —helping existing businesses and helping new businesses that want to come here. Whether they locate in Auburndale or elsewhere, it all makes the county a better place.”
Making Auburndale an attractive place for further economic development is its positive track record with existing businesses and industries — including two power plants, the largest Coca-Cola facility in the world, Buckhead Beef, Colorado Boxed Beef, and the Cantex conduit company — and its significant preparations for future growth.
“We’re ready to go with land zoned for hotels and restaurants,” Palmer says. “We’re set for industrial park centers, manufacturers, and different types of housing, such as apartments and condos. Water and utilities are available (for new growth), and many of our roads have been widened and improved.
“‘We’re Ready!’ was our slogan two years ago,” Palmer says, “and I think it still sticks.”