The city of Lakeland is “Envisioning a Better Downtown,” a path to the future that will enhance not only Polk County’s largest city, but the entire region.

“As we have often said in our county, ‘All ships float as the tide rises,’ ” Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado said when talking about the strategic “Envisioning” plan that outlines growth in the downtown area through development of 10 sub-districts. Although private entities will provide much of the development, the city will ensure connectivity and infrastructure are in place for growth.

“We feel that positive outcomes of new professional business facilities, residences, small-business initiatives and entertainment options will continue to bring significant interest to our entire county. We are so perfectly located along the Interstate 4 corridor that the opportunity to land new business is there, and this will help us take advantage of the positive aspects of our location.”

The first area to be developed is the Sports and Entertainment District surrounding the RP Funding Center. A second hotel is being built there, and a 3,500-seat soccer stadium for the Florida Tropics and various other uses is envisioned.

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz said the time is right for Lakeland to move ahead. “We are literally in a cusp moment in the history of Lakeland. The economy is good, our opportunities are ripe, the footprint is available, and we have an excellent city plan to support wise growth. Our state population is increasing at a rate of 1,000 people a day, and Lakeland is one of its high-growth cities. We must prepare now for the inevitable opportunities immediately ahead.”

We asked Delgado and Mutz to share their thoughts on this plan.

CFDC: Why is the city doing this?
Delgado: We believe that good growth requires solid planning and a strategy that can be embraced by the community. We have developed designs and options in the past and believe that, while they are still very viable, the vision needed a refresh that takes into account the burgeoning interest in the downtown core.

CFDC: Who developed the plan?
Delgado: The plan was spearheaded by city staff (Community & Economic Development Department), but had significant partnership from local architects and design teams, the Lakeland Economic Development Council and City Commission.

CFDC: Is there a city that Lakeland has looked to as a model?
Delgado: We have visited numerous communities over the years, and most recently we have seen some of the successes of Greenville, S.C., and the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area, as well as some of the new neighborhoods in the Orlando area. These cities have followed a similar model in developing their long-term plans.

CFDC: Why 10 sub-districts?
Delgado: It allows the city to implement a phasing approach in the development of projects and area initiatives. The city anticipates a number of possible development partners who are researching either private development opportunities or possible public-private options.

CFDC: As mayor, how do you envision the project moving forward, and what will it mean to the city once completed?
Mutz: We start with a plan and then we seize the moments to implement those plans with the most appropriately aligned parties who seek to participate in our growth in the most creative and aesthetically pleasing ways possible. While we do so, we will see more people move downtown and enhance the vibrancy of its daily pace. We create the plan, work the plan and do so with supporting infrastructure all along the way.

CFDC: Where are you now in the process of making this plan a reality?
Delgado: Obviously, having the available funds with proper and well-thought-out incentive criteria to enhance private developers’ interest will be extremely important. Additionally, establishing the proper zoning and ensuring infrastructure is in place is equally important. The commission is currently evaluating significant financial support options in fiscal year 2020, including a $2.5 million Catalyst area fund to allow our staff to work toward assisting possible private development interest.

CFDC: Why are you starting with the entertainment district?
Delgado: The Entertainment District, encompassing the RP Funding Center, already has some energy with the development of the new hotel project and the renovation of the multi-purpose entertainment/convention facility. Additionally, we have some interested partners, including our professional soccer team, The Tropics, who are working to enhance their product and evaluate options to move into the next professional level. We are also receiving great interest in the Lake Mirror area with the advent of the Catapult facility and other projects surrounding the Lake Mirror and Massachusetts Avenue corridors. This interest is also being buoyed by the fact that the city has entered into public-private partnerships for parking and other projects to enhance the opportunities downtown.

CFDC: What’s the community involvement been like?
Delgado: Our city team has been actively providing Catalyst plan updates to the community through social media, traditional media options and direct discussions with other area civic and professional groups. Much is still design-oriented and philosophical, but the positive interest is certainly great.

CFDC: What roadblocks will you have to overcome to make this work?
Mutz: We must create partnerships with companies who share Lakeland’s values on projects requiring significant capital. We have to make certain we support efforts that are building and protecting affordable housing as we do so. We will likely need to raise project-based, time-ending taxes to incentivize this strategic growth. We must clearly share the vision and opportunities with our citizens so they see the how and the why of this growth and support making those investments.

CFDC: What’s the timeline to have it all done?
Delgado: That is certainly a moving target. We certainly feel that this is an achievable goal within a 25-year window, with the next five years seeing significant success within the initial phase.

CFDC: How excited are you about this project?
Delgado: I am extremely excited by the possibilities. The development of this phased plan has garnered extreme positive interest from many in our community, and seems to have the same interest from both local and national development communities. How could you not be excited about the possibility of enhancing our quality of life and growing in a planned, positive manner?