To say the City of Mulberry is at a crossroads would be wrong: Mulberry is the crossroad, and it’s embracing its position in Polk County and Central Florida.

“Our location is ideal — the proximity to State Roads 60 and 37, and 60 going from one end of the state to the other,” said Mulberry City Manager Rick Johnson. “We are taking advantage of the traffic that goes through here instead of complaining about it.”

One company is trying to take advantage of truck traffic by building a large truck stop along SR 60, Johnson said. “They would like to annex into the city.”

Tony Delgado, city manager in Lakeland, Mulberry’s northern neighbor, agrees that Mulberry should take advantage of its location, just like Lakeland has with Interstate 4.

“With the proximity of the town to Lakeland, the transportation corridor, the ILC (CSX Integrated Logistics Center in Winter Haven) — it’s part of our marketplace. It sits right in that same transportation corridor. I think they’ll benefit from that,” Delgado says.

Three Reasons Why Mulberry Is Growing

Johnson points to several reasons he thinks development is kicking into high gear in the city of 4,000 that he’s managed for six years:

  • “Lowering taxes has paid off,” he said. “We went from the highest taxes in the county to one of the lowest.”
  • City leaders are very happy. “They are very forward-thinking and we’ve all been preparing for this (by adjusting) land development codes,” he said. “Now that that’s happening we are crazy busy. Every meeting we’re able to report some form of progress, whether it’s recreational stuff, developmental or something else.”
  • The city welcomes and works with developers.

“We are absolutely excited,” Johnson said. The development now is a result of following a master plan developed five to six years ago “to make ourselves more business, residential and development friendly by lowering taxes and setting the tone of being someone that’s very flexible and easy to work with. So we’ve done things like partial waiving of annexation fees, partial CRA that we established, partial capacity use — we negotiated for that. There are a lot of things we try to do to be very flexible and welcoming.”

Mulberry has a lot of developable land available, Delgado says. “They are what Lakeland was 25-30 years ago. … Mulberry has a pretty nice palette. Some of it’s a blank palette. I think that lends itself to people saying, ‘They have folks who are visionaries, aggressive,’ and will look for those opportunities.”

To handle all the extra work brought on by development, Johnson hired Ron Borchers as the city’s director of planning and development.

“He has a background in planning, so he is helping with planning and development, but he also meets with all the folks coming in regarding zoning and future land use, and guides them through that process. That’s really picked up.”

Retail Picks Up Steam

An example of some of the retail changes in the city:

  • Conlan tires moved in to 209 S.W. Phosphate Blvd. “When they’re at full capacity, they will employ about 80 people,” Johnson said. The company employs 40 now, but plans to add a second shift. “They made a huge difference,” he says. “They cleaned up the parcel and put a lot of people to work. And they’re all good-paying jobs.” Johnson said the company markets itself to high school students who may not want to go to college. They start off at $12 to $13 an hour, but can earn a percentage bonus up to $5 an hour.
  • A nationwide company just bought a smaller vendor that does the same type work — selling oil to restaurants.
  • Floria’s seafood restaurant just opened at 1207 SR 60 on Aug. 27. On the first day, “you couldn’t get near the place,” Johnson said.
  • A doughnut and coffee shop opened up about two weeks before Floria’s.

Looking at Opportunities

Growth and flexibility are two words that seemingly go hand in hand in Mulberry, and Johnson is quick to provide details.

“We have a $4 million storage facility in the process of being constructed in anticipation of three residential developments behind it,” he said. “That’s a partnership of four developers.”

Johnson said construction on the storage unit is “really flying,” and once that’s done, homes, apartments/condos and an assisted living facility will be built — directly behind the Wal Mart area and adjacent to a county park. “Bridgeport Lakes will be the first large-scale development the city has ever had,” Johnson said. “We just permitted the first 13 of 160 homes.”

Tom Mims is developing Bridgeport Lakes, which will include about 700 homes on 40 acres when completely built.

Johnson said the city is also in the process of swapping land with another developer — Esplanade Communities in Tampa — to widen an entrance off SR 37 so it can build about 40 homes on the 25 acres that once housed Lakeside Mobile Manor.

“We’ve worked very hard to change the perception of the city,” Johnson said, “from one that was relatively close-minded to development to one that is embracing it, bringing us into the cutting edge to where people want to be.”

Along with the growth comes infrastructure opportunities. Johnson said the city has undergone a feasibility study with a company to supply wastewater to an entire industrial park. ”Most people out there are on septic,” he said. “We do have some vacancies — lots never been built on. But it’s starting to fill up.”

Delgado agrees that his city benefits when cities near him do well. “We want the communities nearby to benefit. If they do well, we do well. We’ll see more companies say, ‘That’s not a city, that’s a region’.”