Living and playing are just as important as working, and Polk County offers the best of all three.

With recreational facilities and parks to hip new restaurants and thriving downtowns, low property tax rates, no state income tax and a low unemployment rate (about 3.4%) it’s easy to see why Polk is attracting a lot of interest.

Because some might say living and playing balances working and adds to a person’s quality of life, this five-story series — broken down by region — will focus on what’s right in Polk County — beyond the hot job market.

Lakeland

Ranked as the top city to move to, the fastest-growing city and the most philanthropic by three websites, the City of Lakeland is Polk County’s largest city, nearing 110,000 people. Keeping up with that growth presents its own challenges — mainly funding — but that doesn’t stop city leaders from moving forward and maintaining the things they treasure most.

“We’re doing a lot of great things, even with the tight finances we currently have,” said City Manager Tony Delgado. “Our parks and recreational facilities have been great assets to the city, and we’re continuing to add to them. For instance, Lake Crago Park will open next year and will be special.”

When open, the 119-acre park will focus on water-based activities like kayaking, canoeing, sailing and fishing. Residents will even be able to take lessons in the recreation center that’s being constructed.

The city is also improving the RP Funding Center, home to the Florida Tropics soccer and the Lakeland Magic basketball teams; concerts and plays; convention rooms; and more. A second hotel is also being built.

Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Pam Page said the demand for facilities is increasing. Right now, the city’s southwest quadrant is devoid of amenities, and there are not enough multi-purpose and baseball fields to accommodate team demands. In addition, she said, facilities built decades ago need to be maintained and upgraded, and more trails are needed to connect city parks.

But, Delgado said, “as our community grows, we will find funding to grow.”

Two years ago, the city opened Se7en Wetlands, a park in southeast Lakeland that has trails, picnic facilities and restrooms.

“The park will have an educational center if the state continues to provide the funding,” Page said.

The city also offers a host of other facilities and parks, including:

  • Common Ground, which has become a benchmark for inclusive parks nationally.
  • Holloway Park, a 362-acre recreational area and nature preserve.
  • The Beerman Family Tennis Complex, Kelly Recreation Complex, Hollis Garden, dog parks and more.

Lakeland’s restaurant scene is also coming alive as The Joinery brings “a new style of restaurant to our community,” Delgado said. “It combines food trucks with a seated restaurant facility. It’s pretty special, phenomenal.”

People are also very interested in developing new restaurants and pubs in the Dixieland area to keep up with growth, especially in the Garden District,” he said. “As people start moving closer to the city, new restaurants will be popping up fairly soon.”

Tigertown is also a draw for the city, attracting thousands of locals and out-of-towners alike when the Detroit Tigers come south for spring training. The stadium was overhauled and updated in 2017 and renamed Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

The next story in this five-part series about Polk County focuses on Lakeland’s Bonnet Springs Park.

Mulberry

The City of Mulberry is exploding with housing, said City Manager Rick Johnson. That will increase its population of 4,200 in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Among others, the city is seeing the following growth:

  • 600+ housing units under construction.
  • 41 homes under construction on property the city closed on and is in the process of selling.
  • Another 400 homes that developers will break ground on soon.
  • A possible 6,000+ home development; negotiations with a large developer are ongoing.

Johnson is excited about two other projects, the first is the library expansion, where the air conditioning is being worked on, cabinets ordered and flooring installed. The city is also working with an outside vendor to open a coffee shop at the library; Johnson expects that to open in three to four months.

Second: theater renovations, which the city thought would be a five-year project, but now that it has hired a contractor, it will be a two-year project, he said. City officials toured all local theaters to see what was available and found it will be the only one to offer four options: a cabaret dining experience for murder mystery dinners and the like; live theater; concerts; and films. “It will be the centerpiece of downtown.”

The city is also hosting a Florida BBQ Association-sanctioned event, Pigapalooza, in March and planning its first “Mulberry’s Got Talent.”

Mulberry could also be welcoming the Hampton Inn Suites. The owner of Two Parcels is interested in building a hotel and family-style sit-down restaurant, Johnson said, adding that the city needs a bigger restaurant. “Small restaurants are popping up all over the place,” he said. For instance, a wing place is renovating a building on SR 60.

In addition, the 190-acre former Reservation Golf Course was recently sold at auction, and the first thing the new owners mentioned was a new restaurant, he said.

“It’s going to be a busy 2020,” Johnson said. “As busy as everything is, it will get busier.”