At the heart of the I4 corridor, Polk County boosts new jobs and stronger industries powered by steadfast business climate.

Business in Polk County has grown and diversified in the last decade. New jobs have been added in segments that once lagged. Now, some of those same segments are thriving in Polk County’s business climate.

Let’s take a look at a few numbers:

  • The professional and business services category has increased from 23,600 people in January 2011 to 33,000 today.
  • The leisure and hospitality category has grown from 16,000 in 2010 to more than 25,000 today.
  • Manufacturing jumped from 14,000 in 2010 to 17,500 today.

More jobs, more people working. That’s one reason the unemployment rate has dropped from a 10-year high of almost 13% in mid-2010 to 3.5% today,

Business leaders in Polk County point to some of the things we are doing right to attract even more new businesses and help existing businesses expand here.

In the second quarter of 2019, business applications in the state of Florida hovered close to 100,000, about where they were in the second quarter of 2018. But in 2009, only 60,000 businesses applied for permits.

So why are companies moving here? What’s the attraction to Polk County? We asked several business leaders for their thoughts. They are:

Here’s what they had to say.

CFDC: Do you think the business/economic development picture is positive in Polk County, or not? If it is, why do you think that’s the case?

Ross: I believe the development picture for Polk County continues to get better and better. Not only because of the ideal geographic location of the county, but also because of the diversification of the economic base from agriculture to high tech with Florida Poly and the DOT test track (SunTrax, which is being built by the Florida Turnpike Enterprise and its partners).

Littleton: I am very optimistic about the business climate in Polk County. We are getting more and more diversified in our local economy, which makes it more and more resilient. Indicators are very, very positive — continued low unemployment, a strong housing market, new businesses starting or relocating to Polk County, to point out a few.

Hawley: Construction projects would make it appear that there is business momentum and employment opportunities. However, these are not necessarily bringing in higher-wage jobs. However, having said that, we need to have the skilled labor base in order for companies to want to be here; hence, the chicken/egg story.

CFDC: What do you think the county/cities can do to make the business climate even better?

Littleton: I believe we can always make the government role in development easier. While our county and cities do work hard to make the process of permitting, zoning, etc., as easy as possible, I do believe, like with most things, there is room for improvement.

Hawley: I would say that being good stewards of their finances so that they then can offer business incentives and keep taxes in check for citizens would be material. Emphasize fundamental amenities that affect the overall quality of life within a community, and then balance (those) with the projects of purely environmental esthetics.

Ross: Focusing on infrastructure and solid K-12 education will enhance the business climate and attract more diversified interests in desiring to locate in the Polk County area.

CFDC: What do you think economic, business and governmental leaders have been doing right to help attract new business here?

Hawley: Within Lakeland, we are feeling a positive paradigm shift with the City Commission and several interested young, energetic, up-and-coming leaders. That can make a significant difference given this economic climate and the East/West Polk County boundaries set by the old guard diminishing, but time will tell.

Ross: Tax incentives are tools used by communities all over the world, and these tools should be considered at least in the short term for attracting the right business development. In the long run, though, it is the quality of life of the community that will have the greatest impact on securing a better financial future for the county.

Littleton: Maintaining the tax incentive plan has been a big help in attracting business. Furthermore, I know that the members of the CFDC are always open to make themselves available to help ‘sell’ Polk County to prospective businesses.

CFDC: Does quality of life fit into the business equation? If so, name one highlight specific to Polk County, and one way in which we can make it better.

Ross: Absolutely, and the quality of life in Polk County is increasing with the growth of higher education at Florida Southern College, Southeastern University, Polk State College and Florida Polytechnic University, as well as the development of Bonnet Springs Park, the expansion of Lakeland Linder International Airport, and the Polk Museum of Art, which continue to build our cultural base throughout the county.

Littleton: It definitely plays into the equation. We have excellent health care, a strong arts program throughout the county, natural resources and parks that many enjoy, and highly respected colleges and universities. We enjoy a lifestyle that, in my opinion, is difficult to top. Despite all of these positives, we still have some room for improvement with regard to education. I believe we have come a long way, and I believe we are doing the right things to make it better.

Hawley: Absolutely, especially for the higher-wage earners and retirees. Quality schools and healthcare are at the top of the list, and then the “culture” of the area. We can always do better, but I can confidently say that our quality of healthcare is much better today than 10 years ago. Florida Southern College, Polk State, Southeastern University and Florida Polytechnic University are really working to change/adapt and offer relevant programs that will provide students with not only a good education, but one that will provide a good living — in Polk County.

CFDC: What do you consider some of the success stories in the county in the last year or two?

Littleton: Hands down, Nucor Steel Florida landing in Polk County — Frostproof, specifically — is the biggest win we’ve had most recently. However, as Florida Poly continues to grow and mature, I believe that will be a game-changer for Polk County. Working alongside Polk State in their newly announced articulation agreement is evidence of the positive things that are happening. LEGOLAND continues to drive visitors to our area, and the capital investment they have made — and continue to make — is big. The cargo announcement (Amazon) at the Lakeland Linder International Airport is another huge thing for us. There are so many great things going on, and I believe all of this momentum will help continue to fuel the growth.

Ross: Amazon, LEGOLAND and Florida Polytechnic University are just a few of the amazing success stories that have broadened the economic base of the county.

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.