City of Mulberry is Becoming a Destination and the Depot 303 will add to its Attraction
Mulberry has emerged from a sleepy little town to a growing center of arts, entertainment and, coming soon, culinary delights.
About three years ago, City Manager Rick Johnson started wondering whether the popular food truck rallies would end as the price of gas and insurance continued to rise. “I wanted a place where the trucks could come in and set up in a more stationary place and still be able to sell grandma’s hand-me-down recipes,” he said.
That idea morphed into what is now The Depot 303, an old Badcock Home Furnishings warehouse that the city purchased and, using Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) money, will now develop into a facility that will house seven restaurants and seat 287. The name is significant: 303 for its address – 303 N.W. First Ave. – and Depot to represent the city’s rich railroad history.
THE WORK BEGINS ON THE DEPOT 303
The CRA, which was established in 2016, is paying the $3 million to $4 million cost of the project. A-C-T Environmental & Infrastructure, which has served as the city’s representative to make the vision for the property a reality, has completed its environmental remediation efforts, said Chief Operations Officer Ben Hilton. It then worked with the city on the design/build process.
“Rick Johnson’s vision is starting to transform the city of Mulberry as a place to come visit and enjoy,” he said. “Being able to help support his vision is a lot of fun. He’s a creative individual who does not get bogged down in the weeds. He has a great team that works collaboratively to get the most out of tax dollars for the city.”
Straughn Trout Architects has provided the city with artist renderings and Rodda Construction has been selected to build the 14,000-square-foot facility. Construction is expected to begin at the end of November and be completed in April.
“The location is perfect because it’s in the CRA, in an area we are revitalizing, and just a block north of where we completed the theater several years earlier. It flowed with what we were doing,” Johnson said.
THE JOINERY CONNECTION
When Johnson first floated the idea, he ended up on a field trip to The Joinery in Lakeland, which houses seven restaurants in about 12,000 square feet. “I realized it took a lot more to run that place than what we thought. We wanted to be in the revitalization business, not the restaurant business.”
He’s now working out an agreement with The Joinery to manage the Mulberry facility. Johnson said he expects the restaurants that will locate to The Depot 303 will be somewhat similar to The Joinery, offering burgers, pizza, taco and the like. “But we have a very successful barbecue (Carter’s Bar-B-Que) so wouldn’t have that.”
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR THE DEPOT 303
Mulberry has grown about 25% in the past five years, Johnson said, and is “continuing to grow at a pretty fast pace.”
New apartments, homes and townhomes at all price points are being built along with the revitalization efforts. Johnson said he thinks they will be able to ride out any economic uncertainties and should help the population continue to grow.
“We’ve been laying the groundwork for this growth for the last 10 years,” said Johnson, who started in his position in October 2012. “We’ve been poised for this – we’ve added a new water plant and put different infrastructure into place. We’re adding staff to meet demand.”
Combined, Johnson said downtown will be a destination, attracting people from across the state and even out of state.
“When I first got here, one of my marching orders was to make it so we didn’t have to leave Mulberry to find a place to eat, find entertainment or things to do. We’ve addressed that with all our quality of life programming and different things we have here. We are starting to bring people into the city with our theater and festivals. About 4,500 people live in the city and we had 3,500 people at our Harvest Festival. We expect 4,000 to 5,000 people at our Christmas Village. We’re bringing in people from all over the state to watch performances at our theater. We’re marketing ourselves outside the county and now outside the state as we’re trying to become a destination place.
The city is also planning on building a municipal complex that will house City Hall, a new Civic Center, museum, cultural center and Sheriff’s Office substation. Bids are out for the five buildings. The cost likely will exceed $12 million.
Johnson said he expects to award a contract before the end of 2023; construction will begin in early 2024. The city already owns the land – 6 ½ acres along State Road 60 that backs up to where the Civic Center and library are now. The current Civic Center will be added to the library, doubling its space.