SUN n’ FUN President Set to Take Over as Chair of CFDC
It’s always been about planes and airports for Gene Conrad, and he’ll be putting his knowledge to use in a new way as chairman of the Central Florida Development Council’s board of directors.
Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Conrad moved to Lakeland in January 2010 and served as the director of Lakeland’s airport for 12 years, overseeing rapid expansion and the change from a regional to an international airport. The economic impact of Lakeland Linder International Airport increased dramatically during that time, from about $350 million to $1.5 billion in 2023, including the annual Sun ’n’ Fun expo.
In March 2022, Conrad accepted the position of president and CEO of the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) and Sun ‘n’ Fun Aerospace Expo.
His roles in aviation made him a prime candidate to join the CFDC’s board of directors, then take on leadership roles. He begins his year as chair of the board in September 2023.
“Gene brings leadership skills, a collaborative spirit and a wealth of knowledge about the aviation industry, one of our strategic industry sectors,” said CFDC President & CEO Sean Malott. “On top of all that, he’s worked closely with so many people in the county, and those relationships will serve him well in this role.”
Conrad said he has seen the area grow in more ways than physical development.
“When I got here in 2010, there was always this East-West divide. That’s completely gone,” he said. “Polk County Public Schools, the county, the municipalities, everybody is working hard together. Everyone can appreciate and understand that each entity needs to protect its own interest, but there is so much reaching across the divide to get stuff done. It’s remarkable to watch.”
On the Job Learning
Conrad said he was humbled when asked to join the CFDC board and has learned a lot during his time on it. “I’ve been a huge supporter of the county, and living here, where the quality of life is great, I know there is so much opportunity that exists here,” he said. “I thought if I could help, I would get on board and do it.”
And he was “quite honored” when asked to join the leadership ranks. “In my 12 years running the Lakeland airport I was able to work with leaders in Lakeland and other municipalities, as well as the county and the other three airports here. Economic development is all tied together here, and the aviation ecosystem is strong.”
He credits Malott and Senior Vice President & COO Lindsay Zimmerman for “steering the county through the pandemic years to get us where we are today. They have done a phenomenal job. They are very collaborative and work well with the municipalities. Additionally, they are always driving the bus and are very humble. At the end of the day, they just want to get things done.“
He said he learned a lot from outgoing Chair Maggie Mariucci during her year in office. “Because I knew I was going to be chair, I watched her closely. She is insightful, knowledgeable and has a great network. Her ability to navigate through issues is inspiring. She did a great job working with the Williams Group for the benefit of the Central Florida Innovation District (CFID).”
The CFID — anchored by Florida Polytechnic University and SunTrax — would target businesses in many segments, including Advanced Manufacturing, Healthcare Technology, Information Sciences & Engineering, and Mobility & Innovation. Those industries will attract employers that would offer high-wage jobs that far exceed the average salary in Polk County.
If developed as planned, the 3,000-acre district may provide $5.2 billion in economic impact and 32,000 jobs in the next 20 years, according to a 2020 economic impact study.
Conrad is a transformative leader who has a collaborative spirit and a large network of people to call on. “I am no nonsense,” he said. “I like to get things done and see them through.”
He points to his time at Lakeland Linder, which he completely transformed the airport from sleepy to vibrant, one bustling with activity from the likes of Draken International and Amazon Air.
“A lot of people here ask: What do the local airports do for me? There is no commercial air here,” although there will be one day, he said. “These airports are doing a lot, whether construction, new development, businesses moving to the airports. We have developed great bones for our aviation system over the last decade.”
And work continues. “We realize the opportunities as they continue to come to the airports. The CFDC’s Talent Pipeline Committee is taking on aviation to make sure all these jobs coming here have talented workers.”
Successful partnerships between Sun ’n’ Fun/ACE and the Polk County Public Schools and the Central Florida Air Academies in Lakeland and Winter Haven have led to the creation of new pre-academies in two more middle schools, Conrad said.
Conrad said his goal for his year as chair is to “keep the momentum that’s already been created going. It takes so long for some economic development activities to evolve, but it’s very explosive in Polk County right now.”
That explosive growth – in business and residential – also creates challenges, he said.
“Everyone’s hot-button topic right now is transportation and roads, the ability to move around. Growth is great, but we need to move around. People ask: Why aren’t roads built? Funding is an issue. We’re behind the eight ball. We have to find funding to produce assets.”
The pandemic fueled Polk’s growth as more and more people migrated to Polk County. “The county and all 17 municipalities are doing the best they can. There’s only so much funding to go around. We’re still several years out, but we’re looking for new revenue streams to pay for roads to be built.”
Aviation is the Hot Spot
Conrad said he does not think the county has hit its stride yet in the aviation industry.
“There are so many opportunities out there. Each airport brings a different opportunity to us. Each business looking to locate here is looking for something different. When you look at the different airports and how they operate, we have a pretty broad spectrum.”
The county’s other three airports:
- Bartow Municipal Airport has a growing industrial park as part of its intermodal operations (highway frontage, rail spur and three runways).
- Winter Haven Municipal Airport and its Jack Brown Seaplane Base are known for being the training site for half of the world’s seaplane pilots. It is also now home to the CFAA’s eastern branch.
- Lake Wales Municipal Airport is recognized for aerial sports, including skydiving, parachuting and recreational glider activity.
“The stars have aligned, and everyone is rowing in the same direction. When that happens, the opportunities are endless.”