As the leaders of tomorrow tackle new technology, working remotely, a changing economic landscape and other challenges, the faces of yesterday offer their advice from lessons they learned as those leading the charge.

“By working together, we can accomplish great things that benefit our entire community,” said Greg Littleton, president of Citizens Bank & Trust. “When you consider the state of the Polk County economy when the Central Florida Development Council began, it would have been easy to say the task was too big to overcome.  Thankfully, a group of forward-thinking people believed they could make a difference.”

Littleton, one of only two men who served as chair of the CFDC for two terms (2004-06 and 2012-13), led the organization through turmoil and change. “My advice to present and future leadership is to think big and believe that when concerned leaders come together, they can accomplish anything.”

Gene Engle, president of Gene Engle Realtor who also led through two terms (1985-87 and 2002-04), thought this advice would help the new generation of leaders:

  • “Demographics are always changing, and the virus has brought on a new appearance. I would not consider building an office building today. The demand for office will not be that much in the future. Many employees found that lots of their employees can operate from home just as well.
  • Follow the trends. “The retail trend is taking a 180-degree turn. Amazon is extremely successful. As much as we like to shop with our local people, the big box retailers are pulling back in and going to smaller stores. The days of malls are almost gone.”
  • Look at your new markets. “Follow the sewer line. Transportation is unbelievably important, with our airport in Lakeland landing Amazon. Winter Haven was so smart working with CSX and building the logistics center (ILC).”

He said we should “take advantage of what we’ve got — roads, fiber optics. We are the center of the universe,” a phrase often repeated about Polk County. “We should take those amenities and build upon them.”

Larry Madrid, president of Madrid Engineering|CPWG, served as chair from 2017-18 (he served 1½ terms, completing the previous chair’s term) offers advice that falls into four categories:

  • Inspiration. “In being involved, I had the chance to meet many of the movers and shakers in Polk County, people who give and give of themselves to help with economic development. They inspire me.” Those on the board or who want to be involved should know that it’s “hard to give more than they get. You get so much just by participating and knowing people and seeing their commitment.”
  • Involvement. Last year, Madrid was the keynote speaker for a group of mostly Hispanic sophomores at Colorado State University, his alma mater. “I got to talk about my career, about getting involved in economic development. I told them it’s about the economy, your job, your family.” Madrid likes to share anything related to engineering. “I try to be intentional to be a good example in the engineering and STEM community. There are a lot of opportunities to do amazing projects and work on highly technical and complex problems and find solutions. We do a mentoring program at my company (Madrid CPWG, where he’s president) and talk to students about the engineering field.”
  • Vision. “When they started the CFDC years ago, somebody had a bold vision to help out during the economic crisis,” when unemployment was about 22%. “It was much like COVID now. We have to create an economic opportunity.”
  • Knowing who to ask. “The leadership of the CFDC today is good at knowing where to go for answers,” he said, praising President & CEO Sean Malott and the entire CFDC team

Bud Strang, CEO of Six/Ten, LLC, served as chair from 2015-16, said he would advise incoming chairs to get as many people engaged as possible. “I was surprised at how many people who wanted to be engaged but didn’t know how to. It heightened my awareness of how many resources there are out there, people who want to help and  make things better.”

The CFDC is structured to get people involved and does that well, he said. “It’s the people who are behind the CFDC and around it who make that work. When you get a bunch of people moving in the same direction, good things happen.”

Todd Dantzler, managing director at SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate who became chair after Madrid, said his advice to new leadership is to be flexible. “Don’t get stuck with one mindset — honestly evaluate each program, event and strategy and improve where possible and eliminate when necessary.”

Also very important, he said: People should “enjoy your time in leadership. You will have the opportunity to lead a lot of quality individuals and companies.”

Paul Senft, a former president of the Haines City Economic Development Council and one of the pioneers who led the organization from 1990-91, said future leaders need to be aware of the history — especially the East/West divide — to ensure the county doesn’t repeat it.

“Every city can benefit from things like the new SunTrax testing facility. We need to be on the leading edge … looking to attract companies that manufacture some of these things (being used, like drones) and bring them here.”

Theron Stangry, chairman from 2000-04, said the county needs to continue moving forward to ensure it does not become a bedroom community. That includes creating jobs in Polk County — a CFDC goal — and, while that’s happening, making it easier for Polk County residents to get to jobs outside the county lines.

“SunRail has gone to Kissimmee and Poinciana, and we need to bring it down further using existing rail tracks,” Stangry said. Northeast Polk is growing so rapidly that it is expected to be as large as the city of Lakeland in five years.

Current chair Jake Polumbo, founding partner of Two Blue Aces, noted comments from investing partners who attended a recent CFDC meeting of past chairs. Observations about future game-changing technology, things like renewable energy and energy storage systems, both of which will play a bigger and bigger role in economic development.