A decade in the making, Winter Haven Corp. and the city of Lake Wales have agreed on a development plan that could ultimately attract businesses and restaurants to the small southeastern Polk County city, and double its population.

“It’s the last asset owned by the Winter Haven Corp., and this plan will protect floodplains and wetlands. What’s developable, we want to make sure it’s done right. It has a lot of potential,” said Peterson & Myer’s Bart Allen, attorney for the landholder and CFDC Board Chair.

Winter Haven Corp. has owned the 1,841 acres — located west of U.S. 27, south of Thompson Nursery Road and north of Mountain Lake Cutoff Road — for more than 25 years. It’s the last piece of land from holdings that originally stretched from Cypress Gardens to Mountain Lake Cutoff Road. 

“We took a holistic look at the property, which had been agricultural for decades,” Allen said. “We evaluated existing conditions to identify wetlands so we can use the best land management practices. Then we found the best areas for development and figured out how those can be connected. The landholder didn’t want to max out usage to the greatest extent possible. We worked around the natural characteristics of the land and brought forth a plan that’s good for the property owner and good for the city.”

Lake Wales annexed the land into the city decades ago and provided sewer and water lines as part of an expansion to include Eagle Ridge Mall and Lake Ashton. But the land, zoned for residential, wasn’t ready for development. Working together, the city, Allen, Winter Haven Corp. and Diane Chadwick, a planner for Stantec in Tampa that the law firm hired, created several new land-use classifications that were added to the city’s comp plan, Allen said. The land now includes retail, commercial and other designations.

Now, those involved will begin to find a developer who has the same vision to make the plan a reality. “Eighteen-hundred acres is a lot of land. It’s market driven how quickly it develops and which parts develop first.”

Winter Haven Corp. “feels like it’s been an extremely collaborative effort with the city of Lake Wales,” Allen said. “It was a thoughtful process, and that’s why it has taken as long as it has. A lot of people might be saying, ‘Oh, it’s 6,100 homes.’ But they started this 10 years ago. This isn’t something we pulled out of the hat in 2021.”

City Reaction 

Lake Wales City Manager James Slaton welcomes the project. “We certainly view the growth as a good thing,” he said. “The influx of new residents will expand the customer bases of our local businesses and it will increase the city’s tax base, allowing us to invest in the community through higher levels of municipal services and enhanced amenities. We also believe the development will attract new restaurants, commercial and retail businesses to Lake Wales.”

Mark Bennett, Development Services director of Lake Wales, said the number of new homes could double the city’s current population of 17,000. “Using a persons-per-unit figure of 2.5, this could result in an expected population increase of 15,250 persons at buildout.”

That could help attract more restaurants, he said. “A common statement frequently heard is that the city needs more restaurants. Having more residents in the city will help create a customer base.”

Bennett said those familiar with land development know growth is moving south along U.S. 27. “This growth will occur one way or the other.  It is better that the city retain control of this new growth by having it occur in the city so that it can develop to our standards.”

Opportunity for the Community

When the landholder presented its Winter Haven Corporation Master Development Plan to the city for approval at the Aug. 17, 2021, City Council meeting, city staff provided the following analysis:

“Approval of the Master Development Plan would enable the development of this property and the potential increase in property value. Specifically, estimating a conservative median taxable value of $100,000 per unit, it could potentially result in over $610 million in taxable value, and generate $4 million in ad valorem taxes. This does not include potential revenue generated for non-residential uses.” Adjusted values for potential homesteaded properties were not factored into the estimate.

“This is a good thing because it provides additional funds to maintain and improve our level of service to our residents,” Bennett said. “Our Capital Improvements Program (CIP) already identifies an aggressive list of needed improvements over the next five years. Obtaining additional funding provides the city with the opportunity to perhaps advance the proposed projects in the CIP, plus implement new projects.”

Lake Wales has already identified $4 million in public facility needs, and additional property tax revenue would help the city move forward with those projects.

The city works closely with the Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce/Economic Development Council on economic development issues, Bennett said. “A project of the size of Winter Haven Corp. has the potential to bring new businesses to the city to provide the services necessary to support the additional population.”

Through it all, the city will work to retain the small-town charm it’s known for, Bennett said,

“We will continue to emphasize the revitalization and redevelopment of both our downtown and our northwest neighborhood as outlined in the Lake Wales Connected Plan,” he said. “Additionally, the new growth and development activity that is expected to occur is on the fringe of the city, as opposed to in existing developed areas. Ultimately, the Lake Wales of the future will retain its small-town charm by having revitalized neighborhoods/downtown (that will also benefit from a greater population base), while receiving the benefits of growth.”