Fort Meade may be the oldest city in Polk County, but it’s up and coming right now, assisted by a progressive city manager, an energized community, state and federal grants, and a little help from its partners.
City Manager Danielle Judd arrived 18 months ago and started making things happen quickly with the help of a $40,000 Competitive Florida Partnership Program grant that allowed the community to develop a strategic economic plan that promotes community design, economic diversity and viability, and disaster resiliency.
Having spent much of the last year collecting input from businesses, residents and agencies like the Central Florida Development Council and the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, which helped guide the process and produced the plan, the city is moving forward on the outcomes – seven goals and objectives:
- Supporting and expanding opportunities for businesses.
- Supporting opportunities for the workforce.
- Supporting outdoor adventures and historic tourism.
- Supporting quality of life, including cultural and recreational opportunities, she said.
- Celebrating the Peace River by promoting the city as a destination location.
- Funding strategic public investment.
- Emphasizing the strategies Fort Meade will take to meet future challenges.
“We’re on the move,” Judd said. “We’re working on projecting a certain image to attract what our community is interested in in terms of quality of life and various services. We are getting out there, making our name known and working very hard on things that are important for new businesses to come to town.”
In addition to having four designated Brownfield Areas that total 3,390 acres and are eligible for state grants and loans to spur development on what was, or was perceived to be, contaminated land, the southern portion of the city was recently designated as an Opportunity Zone so investors can get tax credits and reinvestment occurs.
Javier Marin, CFDC’s senior director of business resiliency and global trade, maintains that businesses generally thrive when the communities in which they are located offer the essential conditions to meet industry needs: business-responsive government, proper infrastructure, talented workforce, and good quality of life.
“In our renewed efforts to encourage business and community resiliency, we are committed to working hand-in-hand with Ms. Judd and the Fort Meade administration on the implementation of their strategic economic plan through business expansion and resiliency campaigns that encourage healthy growth within the existing industry base,” Marin said. “We, at the CFDC, are proud to promote the Central Florida region as a global destination for domestic and international companies because Polk County and its municipalities, including Fort Meade, are well-positioned to support a diverse array of industries.”
Creating the Plan
To develop the goals, the city and its partners, along with interested residents, identified assets and ideas to help improve them, everything from small businesses, the highway system (U.S. 17 and U.S. 98), health care and historic downtown to the city’s parks, community center and available industrial land.
They also reviewed strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges on their way to developing the comprehensive plan that will move the city forward.
“I think it’s important you put all the pieces of the puzzle together in one policy document,” Judd said. “It lets stakeholders and partners — schools, industry, banking — know that various meetings they went to resulted in a document. We have a blueprint. It’s not a policy that’s going to be stagnant.”
In October 2020 the city applied for:
- A Downtown Commercial Revitalization Grant.
- Mainstreet designation from the Florida Department of State, which has been recommended.
- A grant for the community center.
- $2.2 million from the national Community Development Block Grant Mitigation Program for electric, water and sewer infrastructure improvements.
- A grant for a feasibility study for reclaimed water from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
It has also been awarded $18,000 for tree canopies from the Urban and Community Forestry Program through the Department of Agriculture. And it used a Community Redevelopment Agency grant to purchase a lot for off-street parking downtown and a vacant bank building. “We have good anchors — Burger king, City Hall, Peace River Packing and the historical museum — for the core downtown area,” she said.
Welcoming Business and Industry
Along with Peace River Packing, the city is happy to have SJS Machinery Inc. and Valmont in town.
In a 9,000-square-foot building, the machine shop repairs and sells used and reconditioned centrifuges.
Valmont makes utility poles and has hired more than 30 people so far, said site General Manager Beth Hipp. “Our current Valmont headcount is 53,” she said. “We employ 71 total employees — 18 are temps. We use a staffing agency to fill these positions based on business needs, so this number fluctuates based on customer demand.”
The permanent positions include 17 high-skill jobs like crane operators and welders; 15 medium-skill jobs like machine operators; 16 entry-level positions; and five administrative positions, she said.
Judd said there are thousands of industrial acres available near Valmont on U.S. 17. It’s a little too soon for spinoff businesses to start locating there, but she expects that to change.
She also would like to see other services and industries move in, including medical and hospitality. And even though the governor vetoed $250,000 that had been approved in this year’s budget for the Peace River (one of many cuts in a coronavirus-ravaged budget), the city is ready to move ahead with its site plan for the environmental area.
The city is also working on a Smart City initiative and eventually would like to attract a supermarket. Right now, the independent Fresh Choice Market is filling that niche and “seems to be doing fine,” she said.
Quality of life is important in Fort Meade, and Judd wants everyone to know that. “We want to make sure we send the right message to support local and new businesses.”