Outgoing Central Florida Development Council Chairman H.D. “Jake” Polumbo brought many skills with him when he joined the CFDC board. The retired Air Force Major General used his leadership prowess and strategic thinking skills to apply to economic development. It would be a challenging year, but one he was ready for.
However, he didn’t expect a year quite like this one.
“It has not gone at all like I thought it would,” Polumbo said in late September, about two weeks before he would turn the reins over to Polk State College President Angela Garcia Falconetti. “I’m kind of new to the economic development business after spending nearly 40 years in the military. I was learning on the job. It did not go in typical fashion. COVID was 95% of the reason. We were going pretty strong at the CFDC and were on a good path toward success and achieving our goals.”
Optimism and upbeat people were making things happen, said Polumbo, founding partner of Two Blue Aces consulting who also works on strategy and industry partnerships at Florida Polytechnic University.
“People were moving into the area, businesses started to understand what we were doing, our strategy started to gel,” he said. Then, the coronavirus shut down much of the state and U.S. economy in March. It is just beginning to rebound.
Previous chairs, most recently, Bud Strang, Dr. Eileen Holden, Larry Madrid and Todd Dantzler, built a solid foundation upon which Polumbo could build, he said. He now adds to that to assist Falconetti as she moves up from vice-chair, all supporting CFDC President Sean Malott and his team.
“During the peak of the pandemic we were in survival mode, helping the county distribute CARES Act funding through the Polk CARES Small Business Grant,” a program President Trump signed to help businesses and individuals, Polumbo said. “In some ways, because we had a good baseline, we were able to ride the storm out. Sean’s team is doing well.”
Malott praised Polumbo for his leadership during a tough year.
“Jake did a stellar job supporting the CFDC and keeping its mission in the forefront when most of the county was closed for business,” he said. “This year presented a unique opportunity for strategic leadership and we are fortunate Jake was in the Chairman seat. His depth of leadership experience and operational acumen were instrumental to help guide us during this difficult time. We look forward to his continued service on the board and his support of our new chair as we continue to advance our strategic initiatives.”
As a past chair, Polumbo will continue to work with Malott and board members to focus on a high-level economic development strategy to “compete with business sectors in the state and country in the next few years,” he said. Among the questions to be answered and challenges to be met:
- “How do you market the region for higher level, high-tech businesses that will dramatically change our industries in the next few years?”
- “How do we position ourselves to attract high-tech new industries like artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced manufacturing? We’ll have to continue to describe our vision for that, setting strategy for economic development in a higher-tech arena.”
“We have to encourage a high-level innovative thought process to lure industries here that do AI, companies that program machines to learn and do things that are challenging for humans to accomplish,” Polumbo said. That includes advanced manufacturing for new products, services, software and maybe even recreating aircraft parts from scratch using 3D printing and other new techniques.”
Along with Malott, Falconetti will be key, he said, “even as she runs her college with distinction.” Polk State does a great job already with workforce development, technical skills and health care training.
“Angela will be perfect for the role of talking to potential new business leaders who need to be convinced that the workforce we are developing, training and educating here in Polk County is up to the task,” Polumbo said. “She can convince chief executives that we have the workforce to stimulate growth and enable future growth if they choose to locate here.”
Polk County has a great post-secondary learning environment with the “unique blending of Florida Poly’s theoretical understanding of the applied sciences and new technology needed today with the workforce development of Polk State and the business acumen of Southeastern University and Florida Southern College.”
As the effects of the pandemic recede, Malott and Falconetti will be able to return to face-to-face meetings, where you can “sit with business leaders and investors and convince them over coffee that we are going to do this … if you’ll just come along with us.”
It’s very difficult to sell new ideas on Zoom meetings, he said. That part of economic development, like attracting businesses to the planned Central Florida Innovation District, was shut down for much of the year. “Now, we need to start building relationships again.”
Polumbo said the CFDC should also harness the collaborative spirit current local government leaders have created and continue to be the lead organization that brings the county’s economic development councils together. “We need collective thinking — to plan together, share resources and efforts — to achieve our lofty goals.”
Along with Malott, Falconetti — who oversees large campuses in Winter Haven and Lakeland and is known countywide — could be the catalyst for that.