Real job growth is happening in Lakeland, as indicated by Polk County’s steadily falling unemployment rate, but pinning down the jobs number for Polk’s largest city involves “a lot of moving pieces,” says Jason Willey, the city of Lakeland’s business development manager.

What animates Willey are the job numbers he can pin down — and add up. Try about 7,500 jobs created by companies that recently have built or expanded in an area of just a few square miles on the Lakeland’s west side. With the almost-year-old Amazon fulfillment center in the middle of it all, this is the area roughly bordered by Interstate 4, the Polk Parkway, County Line Road and Drane Field Road.

“That area is gaining strength as a high-value employment center, and there’s diversity in these jobs,” Willey says. “These are not just a few companies adding 50 jobs here and there; we have several with 300, 400, 500 and 600 employees.”

For example, he says, Amazon settled on Lakeland as the location for its first Florida fulfillment center with a commitment to start operations with close to 300 full-time employees, but already the staff is up to about 650 people.

“These are full-time positions, not seasonal ones,” Willey says. “This is more than 300 the number they committed to.”

Close to Amazon on County Line Road is the new O’Reilly Auto Parts distribution center, which Willey says has 400 employees. Over at the expanding Rooms To Go warehouse on Airport Road, more than 700 people are on the payroll following the addition of approximately 100 jobs there in 2014, according to company President Steve Buckley.

Other top employers in the area are two companies with ties to the medical and health-care industries. WellDyne, a leading provider of health and wellness solutions and pharmaceutical services, has 550 employees in Lakeland at its corporate headquarters and Southeast Regional Office, Willey says; and Stryker, one of the world’s leading medical technology companies, is nearby with 600 employees at its Florida production facility.

Another company promising a large employee base in Lakeland is Atlanta-based DS Services of America, one of America’s leading operators in the home and office beverage delivery market. On June 30, Gov. Rick Scott joined local government and business leaders in announcing that DS Services will open a $12.4 million, 72,000-square-foot customer contact center on Swindell Road, not far from the WellDyne facility. DS Services Chief Executive Officer Tom Harrington says the center is expected to create more than 400 jobs by the end of 2015.

The new DS Services facility and Rooms To Go expansion are the latest in a series of large and even extra-large construction projects in west Lakeland. Willey says that when they’re completed, several of the commercial complexes will be at or above 1 million square feet in size.

“Southern Wine & Spirits, off Old Tampa Highway, near the intersection of I-4 and the western end of the Polk Parkway, is six weeks away from a CO (certificate of occupancy) on its new addition, 440,000 square feet, which will give it more than 1 million square feet,” Willey says. “Rooms To Go, was already well over 1 million square feet. The new 300,000-square-foot expansion will put them at 2.1 million square feet.”

The Publix Supermarkets warehouse reached the 1 million-square-foot mark with an expansion project a few years ago, and the Amazon fulfillment center began operations in late August 2014 in a complex that also came in at 1 million square feet.

Willey says the large warehousing and distribution operations are helping to generate additional construction projects. For example, he says, The Ruthvens is nearing the end of work on a 131,170-square-foot office-showroom-warehousing complex near the intersection of Drane Field Road and Airport Road, and a 174,000-square-foot complex designed for warehousing and manufacturing is going up in the Interstate Commerce Park, near the new Brew Hub craft brewery operation.  (ADD VIDEO LINK IN HERE)

“There’s a need for space — spec (speculative) space,” Willey says. “There’s a lot of interest in space greater than 100,000 square feet. You wouldn’t have seen this a couple to five years ago.”

Willey says that in addition to warehousing, distribution and an expanding manufacturing sector, key drivers for economic growth in the city of Lakeland include education, health care and retail.

The education story begins with the year-old Florida Polytechnic University, located in the rural northeast corner of the city, at the intersection of I-4 and the eastern end of the Polk Parkway. In addition to what’s already been built on the university property, so much more construction is planned, and the area is ripe for development of school-supporting businesses, organizations and off-campus student housing.

“There’s just so much open space — blank space — for development there,” Willey says.

Closer to downtown, Florida Southern College on Lake Hollingsworth continues to grow, with work wrapping up on the construction of the new Bill and Mary Ann Becker Business Building. Costing approximately $25 million, the three-story, 37,000-square foot building — “the flagship of the business school” — should be open for the arrival of students this August, Willey says.

Over at Southeastern University on Longfellow Boulevard, the school built a College of Natural & Health Sciences building and football stadium last year and then received November 2014 approval from the board for another major expansion. This one will include an Administration and Athletics Operation Building, a multipurpose Live/Learn facility, an expansion of the Student Activities Center, and an NCAA eight-lane track and field complex.

With expected fall enrollments of about 1,000 students for Florida Poly, 2,100 for Florida Southern and 3,400 for Southeastern, “We have a lot of college students here in town,” Willey says.

Health care in greater Lakeland continues to be a growth industry, both in services and facilities. For example, Willey says, Lakeland Regional Health announced plans in February for a new eight-story, 300,000-square-foot hospital tower that will provide expanded space for the Emergency Department, a new Women’s and Children’s Center and additional operating rooms.

“The whole medical corridor on Lakeland Hills (Boulevard) will continue to change and grow as the hospital gets bigger and bigger,” Willey says.

On the retail side, the 210,000-square-foot Lakeland Park Center shopping complex opened in August 2014 near the intersection of I-4 and U.S. Highway 98 in north Lakeland. Already anchored by Dick’s Sporting Goods, ROSS Dress for Less and Old Navy, the shopping center isn’t completed yet. “There’s a second phase to come,” Willey says.

Describing his role with the city of Lakeland, Willey says the business development team normally gets involved with a new business or industry “once we get past the recruiting aspects” by organizations such as Enterprise Florida, the Central Florida Development Council (CFDC) and the Lakeland Economic Development Council.

“We meet with company executives, tell them what Lakeland can do for them, what Lakeland is all about — a sales pitch of sorts,” he says.

Willey says the economic development agencies give the “big-picture presentations” about Lakeland when they’re recruiting new businesses to the city. “When I get to come in, my intent is to give the company a better understanding of Lakeland — and the expectations the city has of the company as well,” he says. “We remain in contact with the business through the whole project so there are no fatal flaws. We are on board with them to help meet their project demands and to keep them on schedule.”

The city of Lakeland is one of 50-plus businesses, organizations and communities that have invested financially with the CFDC during its transition from a public-private organization, under the umbrella of the Polk County government, to a privately run agency.

The city has worked with the CFDC since the agency was formed in 1985, but the annual financial investments didn’t begin until about four years ago, Willey said.

“It wasn’t until the organization started to go in the direction it’s heading in now that the city decided to invest, and then Lakeland was quick to sign up,” he said. “We said ‘We’re on the same team. We want to support you.’ ”

Willey is the city’s liaison to the CFDC. He attends the agency’s general meetings and serves on a few committees, including the Business Retention and Expansion Committee.

He says the Lakeland city manager, Doug Thomas, is a “big supporter of economic development.”

“We’ve always supported the CFDC, so we’ve got that relationship,” Willey says. “Whether it’s public or private, it really hasn’t changed our history of working together.”