When past board chairs of the Central Florida Development Council convene, it’s easy to see why the county has come so far from the days of the East/West divide.
“They actually asked each other for help often as they worked with the county and the cities to make things better, and that’s how a couple of them served more than one year and more than one term,” said current CFDC Board Chair Jake Polumbo, founder of Two Blue Aces.
The CFDC and Polumbo hosted 8 past board chairs recently in an informal session to celebrate them and share stories about the organization’s history, relevance and impact on Polk County,
The guests reflected on key points in the organization’s history, and how “leaders on the board worked together to overcome (low points) and keep things on track,” Polumbo said.
People like Greg Littleton, who was instrumental in keeping the CFDC relevant — one of only two chairs to serve two terms. And more recent chairs like Bud Strang, Larry Madrid and Todd Dantzler, who helped improve relations with the county.
“They all made the relationship with the county better behind the scenes, [helping] to show how the CFDC has become more relevant,” Polumbo said.
Engle, board chair from 1985-87 and 2002-04, was one of the founders of what now is the CFDC, a time when unemployment neared 22 percent in Polk County. He and others started the economic development agency to help diversify the economy and broaden the employment base.
“We would rather have 100 industries with 100 employees,” a goal the founders fought to achieve in the early days, moving away from reliance on a few big industries (citrus, phosphate and Piper Aircraft) employing thousands each. “If one went out, we wouldn’t be hurt. We need to keep bringing more companies in and continue to be diversified.”
Paul Senft, board chair from 1990-91, looks back on the days of working with Engle to get the tourist development tax passed in a referendum. Their collaboration, their time together talking to church and community groups, civic organizations and more, led to easy passage.
Senft said the CFDC brought the county together, something that was needed at the time. It led the charge to be “One Polk,” he said, ensuring everyone would share equally in revenue and celebrate each other’s successes. “We buried the hatchet. No one talks about the East/West divide anymore. Everyone is getting a little along the way.”
Theron Stangry, board chair from 2000-02, reflected on how the late Joe P. Ruthven of The Ruthvens “really helped me and mentored me. He took me under his wing. We went out and raised money for Lou Holtz to be our guest speaker.”
Ruthven’s son, Greg Ruthven, who served as chair from 2013-14, said board members worked well together to attract new business and transition the CFDC, which was partially funded by the Board of County Commissioners, into a private 501(c)6 organization.
“At the time we were just not sure what was going to happen with the CFDC,” Ruthven said. “Fortunately, relationships improved over time and our CFDC has grown stronger with an excellent team in place led by President & CEO Sean Malott. We are in a pretty good spot right now. I call it The Hot Spot.”
He thought about what his dad would think now. “Dad would have said Polk County is getting ready to blossom. The trees are in full bloom.”
Dantzler played a key role in helping to bring the county together and to look forward during his term as chair, from 2018-19.
“Some of the larger municipalities have created their own EDCs and we work to support those EDCs and their communities,” he said. “But the folks in our smaller cities need a dedicated group to assist them in their economic efforts. Whether that is pursuing a grocery store, more eating establishments or additional industry, the CFDC is here to work for the entire county.”
The CFDC also works closely with the county to help it accomplish its goals, Dantzler said. “We welcome the cooperation of businesses, cities, EDCs and local governments to enhance and promote economic development throughout the entire county.”
“It’s impressive,” he said. “We have had so many talented people involved in the development and history of the CFDC, and we’re lucky to have many of them still in the Central Florida area to help share the lessons they learned.”