This op-ed by CFDC President and CEO Sean Malott was originally shared by The Ledger. 

Polk County was a hotbed of activity before all this started, and it’s our job, mission and responsibility to continue to build upon the solid foundation that still exists.

When 2020 started, the economy was riding high, unemployment in Polk County was 3.7 percent and the path seemed clear for new businesses to build here and existing ones to expand.

Then we all learned a new word: coronavirus. Never could we have imagined an infection halfway around the world would alter our plans for this and future years, forcing us to rethink everything from how we socialize to how we reopen the economy and make it thrive again.

We are not out of danger from the pandemic. No one knows what will happen once safer-at-home orders are lifted and life as we once lived returns. But we do know this: Polk County was a hotbed of activity before all this started, and it’s our job, mission and responsibility to continue to build upon the solid foundation that still exists.

Because Polk County had a diversified economy before the pandemic hit, we know our future will shine brightly again, even if it starts back as glowing embers. We will not let this deviation paralyze us. Indeed, it’s time to move from dealing with the pandemic to recovery and beyond — without jeopardizing anyone’s health.

Our mission to grow our economy based on high-wage, high-skill sustainable businesses is more important than ever. The target clusters of the Central Florida Innovation District — health tech, information sciences, advanced manufacturing and mobility — are more timely than ever to move us in that direction.

Looking ahead, we have several major manufacturing plants in the works. Nucor Steel Florida is building a $240 million steel micro mill in Frostproof, bringing with it 250 jobs that pay about $66,000 a year each. The No. 1 steel producer in the United States is revered for never having laid off an employee.

Peace River Citrus Products in Bartow announced a $98 million expansion and 175 new jobs. Once the new facility is up and running, it will produce every container of Minute Maid orange juice sold at any McDonald’s in the entire world – right out of Bartow.

Florida Can Manufacturing is building a new $123 million facility in Winter Haven. The company plans to produce billions of aluminum cans annually and create 160 new jobs. Recyclable cans will be sold to replace the use of plastic bottles in the beverage industry.

And Molekule, a leading innovator in clean air purification, is developing its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Lakeland. When built, the company will provide high-tech, high-wage jobs at its manufacturing facility, which will also serve as a hub for research and development.

That’s what we need more of, and the Central Florida Innovation District will be a key component in attracting businesses and people. Located near Florida Polytechnic University and SunTrax, the Innovation District will serve as the location where engineers, researchers, scientists, doctors and the like will work, maybe even find a cure or vaccine for the coronavirus.

The district isn’t just a location, though. It’s a culture. One where like-minded people collaborate to develop new ideas. MADD Technologies, a business started by a group of Florida Poly students, could be a great tenant. A consulting and technology startup, it focuses on consumer electronics and computer software, providing services such as app development and computer-aided design. It’s the future. It’s now.

We cannot and will not forget the foundation that got us to this point, a diverse set of businesses centered on recreation, agriculture, distribution and manufacturing that employ many thousands in Polk County.

Companies like Publix Super Markets, Saddle Creek Logistics Services and Florida’s Natural Growers have called Polk County home for decades, joined more recently by the likes of Legoland Florida, Amazon and Walmart.com. Amazon Air last year announced it will build a $100 million air cargo hub at Lakeland Linder International Airport. And other companies are on their way.

They continue to create jobs, which benefit all of us. Not everyone is wired the same, and having a variety of job options is critical for growth in any economy.

During this pandemic, we want you to rest assured that we are not losing focus. In fact, this reboot forced upon us by the coronavirus gives us an opportunity to renew our strategies and focus on continuing the progress we’ve made in the last few years. We live in a county with so much to offer and so much growth ahead of us, and we will continue to work with our economic development partners to ensure that our post-coronavirus world offers everything residents here should expect, including a robust economy with jobs for many.