As a new decade comes into focus, Polk County’s education, municipal and business leaders are forecasting economic activity, growth and a lot of progress in 2020.

Fourteen leaders in the community offered their thoughts on what the new year might bring, covering everything from new restaurants and development to aviation and transportation improvements.

City Leaders 

Winter Haven’s theme in 2020 is simple: “When investors think about doing business in Winter Haven, we say, ‘of course,’” said City Manager Mike Herr. That makes sense with everything Winter Haven has going on in the city.

  • Six/Ten, LLC’s continued development in and around the downtown area.
  • Attracting more investors to build downtown residences to interest millennials.
  • Selling 40 more acres in its business park.
  • Attracting new restaurants to open near Legoland on State Road 540.
  • Rolling out a digital communications plan so the city can provide residents and businesses with exceptional service.

The city will be working with downtown businesses and Winter Haven Main Street leaders “to introduce a sidewalk cafe prototype to promote more opportunities for our entertainment district to enjoy eating outdoors at some of the finest eating establishments in Polk County,” Herr said.

“You can count on our city team to play offense and defense with a chip on our shoulders, looking for ways to be more efficient with resources and improving our business climate daily.”

Mayor Brad Dantzler said he expects Winter Haven to “get to yes as quickly and easily as possible” He also wants to make the city as arts-friendly as possible.

Lakeland city manager Tony Delgado said he hopes that the economic growth the region has seen in the past few years continues.

“The city of Lakeland will be working toward managing opportunities to develop affordable housing, increasing economic development within our downtown catalyst areas, striving to create the long-envisioned Innovation District and enhancing the quality of life of the city and county alike through smart growth initiatives and understanding of our partners’ vision.”

Haines City city manager Deric Feacher said 2020 looks promising, as well. “New residential development continues, and a resurgence of commercial development is on the horizon with Carvana leading the way,” Feacher said about the online used car retailer that arrived in the city last year.

“Haines City is primed to take advantage of individuals moving to Central Florida and looking for a community that offers you a small-town experience, but access to greater metropolitan opportunities,” he said. “The influx of incentives through our Community Redevelopment Agency is helping to ignite the downtown and redevelop our historic neighborhoods.”

Feacher also said annual events are thriving and new events catering to the arts, culture and music are on the way.

Education

Polk State College President Angela Garcia Falconetti said the future is bright thanks to the support of many people, including the Polk County Legislative Delegation.

“In 2020, Polk State will continue to advocate in the best interests of students at the state level and will continue to work diligently as the college approaches its reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.”

Falconetti said higher education will continue to transform the lives of students and “open doors of opportunity for our students and soar to new heights in 2020.

Polk County Public Schools has raised its district grade to a B and improved its graduation rate to a record 80.4%, according to Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd. “In 2020, we will continue to raise the bar on academic achievement in Polk County.”

Beyond that, it has two main goals, the first is building and renovating schools to keep up with growth. “In 2020, we will open Davenport Elementary. I recently toured this project, and I am so proud of the care that has been taken to preserve the historic structure while also expanding the campus to accommodate a modern community.” The district is also planning to build a new high school in Davenport this year. Taxpayers helped fund both schools by renewing the half-cent sales tax for education in 2018.

The second goal is improving the culture in the district “so that we operate more efficiently, and all 13,000-plus employees feel supported in their life-changing work for students.” As part of that, the district developed a School Discipline and Student Behavior Response plan to efficiently and systematically respond to behavior problems.

“I look forward to seeing the results of this work ripple throughout our district in 2020,” Byrd said. “The forward momentum at PCPS is growing stronger every day, we’re headed in the right direction. We just have to keep going.”

Florida Polytechnic University, has three main priorities:

First, recruiting top-notch students and faculty. “In 2020, I think we’ll see excellent numbers,” said President Randy Avent. “As an economic driver for Polk County and the state, recruitment of the best and brightest students and faculty is key to our success and the furtherance of our academic mission. I’m excited about where we’re headed there.”

Second, developing the research park within the Central Florida Innovation District surrounding the campus. “We have an incredible opportunity here to build a research park, as an anchor of the CFID, and how this entire area gets developed is critical to the success of this vision,” Avent said.

“We recently released an economic impact study that highlighted more than $289 million annually in overall economic activity with over $72 million of that being GDP impact in Polk County.  Continuing this trajectory and ensuring our graduates can stay here locally in high-skill, high-tech and high-wage jobs is paramount.  The way to making this happen is through an adjacent research park and the Innovation District, so this will be a high priority for us in 2020.”

Third, continuing construction on the 90,000-square-foot Applied Research Center, which will “serve as a research hub for students, faculty and high-tech industry in the region,” he said. “It was designed with the goal of creating a dynamic, functional and flexible space that will assist our faculty and students with the commercialization of innovation and applied research.”

Florida Southern College President Anne Kerr said the school is excited about several major initiatives in 2020, including:

  • “Expanding the computer sciences majors (the fastest-growing majors) to include cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, big data and logistics.” When built, the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Computer Sciences Building will include a cyber range, laboratories, e-gaming suite, garage-style maker space, as well as classrooms, offices and a café, she said.
  • Combining two majors to improve the understanding of both. “Deans Tracey Tedder and Linda Comer from education and nursing have developed a unique undergraduate interdisciplinary program so that education majors will study how a child’s health impacts learning and also how learning success or a lack of will impact a child’s health,” Kerr said. The programs will be taught in the Carol Jenkins Barnett Center for Early Childhood Learning and Health, which is opening in February.
  • Breaking ground on the third building for Roberts Academy, Florida’s only school dedicated to middle school students with dyslexia.
  • Continuing to focus on the arts by attracting exhibits to the Polk Museum of Art.
  • Continuing to ensure 100% of its nursing students pass and growing its new Physical Therapy program, which already exceeds projections.
  • Welcoming recently retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis, who has created a program to train judges, attorneys, teachers and volunteers to teach civics to students.
  • Growing its new e-sports and ice hockey programs.

Southeastern University President Kent Ingle said starting a new decade is always an exciting time, a time to set new goals.

“Within the last decade alone, Southeastern has experienced exponential growth, being ranked in the top 3 percent of the fastest-growing private nonprofit master’s institutions in the nation,” he said, adding that the school’s goal for the new year is to serve more than 10,000 students. SEU nearly reached that goal in the 2019-20 academic year with 9,894 students.

“As a university, we believe we can achieve our goals when we relentlessly pursue what we are called to do,” Ingle said. “We continue to look to the new year with goals of increasing enrollment, continuing to provide affordable and accessible education around the nation through our extension sites, and providing premier student experiences through expanded facilities and competitive athletic programs.”

Local Businesses

The Lunz Group president Brad Lunz said more clients are trying to be environmentally sensitive, a trend he expects to continue in the new year. “Clients are increasingly requesting products and services that are not just environmentally beneficial but are also meaningful and socially beneficial.”

A shift from efficiency toward effectiveness is also in the company’s future, along with changing the design culture from “me” to “we” to create a holistic design process.

“Design is more than a service,” Lunz said. “It is an experience.”

Broadway Real Estate Services president Matt Clark expects a growing economy, and entrepreneurs’ optimism in it, to continue.

“Companies are investing in people and infrastructure with continued plans for growth. We believe we have some runway left ahead of us and are eager to see what 2020 brings,” he said.

Polk County and Florida businesses benefit from the influx of people moving to the state, more than 1,000 a day, Clark said. “People are what drive the economy, and we are blessed to have such an attractive and growing local economy with strong net-migration.”

Polk County’s population has increased about 100,000 people, to about 700,000 people, since the last Census in 2010. Clark’s company is investing in those newcomers: It expects to break ground on a new 90-unit apartment complex in the Garden District in Lakeland in the first quarter of 2020.

“We are working on several other development opportunities throughout the state and believe the market will continue to support growth in the storage industry.”

Straughn Trout Architects managing principal Tim Hoeft said the firm is excited to see what development will occur within the CFID. “The collaboration among the many stakeholders thus far has been inspiring.”

He’s also thrilled about the January 2020 ribbon-cutting for the new AdventHealth Fieldhouse & Conference Center in Winter Haven, a multipurpose building featuring a 58,400-square-foot gym area, fitness center, black box theater and more. “We are looking forward to seeing the economic and community impact. The project will bring unique events to Polk County and also accommodate many local events that need additional space due to recent growth.”

Citizens Bank & Trust saw its best year ever in 2019, said President & CEO Greg Littleton. “We are looking to carry that momentum into the new year.  We have planned and budgeted for good, solid, steady growth in loans and deposits.  I believe this economy can and will support continued growth, and we look forward to another record year’s performance.”

Presidential elections can often affect the economy, and Littleton said he thinks people gauge or delay financial decisions during such times. “I do believe it could slow things a bit, but I don’t think it will have a dramatic impact,” he said. “Otherwise, we are optimistic that locally things will stay at the good level of activity that we’ve seen the past couple of years.  It is far from being overheated like it was before the downturn, which is a very good thing.”

SVN Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate managing director and owner Gary Ralston said the number of manufacturing jobs in the county is growing, “there are several new large employers on the horizon.”

The warehouse industry is also thriving. With almost 20,000 jobs associated with warehousing and related sectors, such as wood product manufacturing and truck transportation, Ralston said.

Health care is also a robust part of the economy, although about even with the national average, Ralston said. “Based on population age and the growth in the percentage of seniors, we expect this to grow and increase in strength in the future as medical providers from outside the market seek to establish a physical presence in Polk.”

With only half as many professional and technical services jobs as the national average, Ralston said we need more of both, and “Florida Polytechnic University and SunTrax should make a difference in the future.”

Allen & Company vice president Laura Hawley is optimistic about the new year. “There are so many amazing projects going on in the state of Florida and Polk County, and it is the entrepreneur and innovation that continue to play a tremendous role in the growth of our economy, whether it be local, state, or nationally.”

Regional Planning

Pat Steed, executive director of the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, said technological changes are exciting, “specifically, how technology is changing our transportation choices and how technology is changing our workforce and its options on when and where to work.” Transportation changes include the emerging aviation cluster, which she called a “potential sweet spot in the regional economy for both transportation and jobs paying above average wages.”

As for its work, the council is updating “Heartland 2060: Building a Resilient Region” so it can see what has changed in the past decade affecting the economy, jobs, education, transportation, the environment, natural resources and our communities, Steed said.

“Looking at what has changed as expected, and particularly the unexpected, can help us as we forecast the opportunities and challenges that may lay ahead. Resiliency is how we handle the unexpected and also how we ensure all our eggs are not in the same basket.”

With Polk County’s unemployment rate near a record low, 3.4% in October, Steed said she expects new opportunities for workers. “It also reinforces our need to ever improve the work readiness factor for our high school graduates.”

On the Horizon

Central Florida Development Council president Sean Malott said Polk County’s economic development environment is poised for more success in 2020.

“This year, we will continue advancing our strategic initiatives to add to the growth of the county, including the development of the Central Florida Innovation District, building an ecosystem to support autonomous vehicles and unmanned systems, strengthening Polk’s aviation industry and supporting critical infrastructure initiatives,” he said.

“These strategic initiatives help continue our work for promoting Polk County as Florida’s best place for business and developing an economically prosperous community.”