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Winter Haven Experiencing Explosive Growth Powered by More than $100 Million in Economic Investment

September 28, 2016 News

Decisions both grand and seemingly small in business and government have positioned greater Winter Haven well for robust and diversified economic growth for many years to come.

Once identified largely as the home of the world-famous Cypress Gardens attraction, Winter Haven is a major draw for family tourism again as the host community for the wildly popular LEGOLAND, Florida Resort.

Once highly dependent economically upon the success of the Florida citrus industry, Winter Haven is now the site of the world’s most technologically advanced rail-truck transfer and distribution hub for freight of all kinds.

Not to be overlooked in the heart of the city, a once-sleepy downtown area is bustling again with investment, commerce and community activity.

Take those prime developments and sprinkle in new commercial and residential projects in other sectors of Winter Haven and what you get is a community brimming with economic optimism. You also get a community that can market itself to prospective new companies and business investors as “The heart of Florida’s Super Region” — the 15-county Central Florida region that generates $300 billion per year in economic activity.

Putting that $300 billion-per-year figure in perspective is Connect, a new, full-color, 24-page marketing magazine that tells why “You (and your company) belong here” in Winter Haven. The magazine was a joint project of the city of Winter Haven, the Winter Haven Economic Development Council (WHEDC), the Greater Winter Haven Area Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Winter Haven.

“It captures all the current information about what’s going on in Winter Haven,” Merle Bishop, the city of Winter Haven’s Growth Management Department director, says about Connect. He says the magazine was a collaborative effort of the city, the chamber, Main Street WH and the WHEDC because “It’s important that we’re all speaking from the same page.”

What the magazine captures in just a few pages speaks volumes about the Florida Super Region, “a super-awesome place” that constitutes the ninth-largest economy in the United States and, “were its own country… would have the 40th largest economy in the world, surpassing the nations of Singapore, Chile and Israel.” That’s not boasting. It’s a statement supported by figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

One of more than 50 investor-members of the Central Florida Development Council (CFDC), the city of Winter Haven is reveling in the tremendous success of the almost 4-year-old LEGOLAND, Florida theme park at the former Cypress Gardens location. The park sits along the eastern shoreline of Lake Eloise in unincorporated southeast Winter Haven and is fronted by Cypress Gardens Boulevard.

“What I’ve heard is that of the six LEGOLAND theme parks operating around the world, the one here is the most successful,” Bishop says.

The city and business leaders are also still celebrating the July announcement that a downtown Winter Haven location will be the new North American headquarters for Merlin Entertainments, the parent company of the LEGOLAND parks and the world’s second-largest attractions operator.

Bishop says the Winter Haven EDC is in the final stages of an economic marketing study about the potential for developing the hospitality industry along Cypress Gardens Boulevard from Overlook Drive east to U.S. Highway 27. Though the entire area isn’t inside the Winter Haven city limits, Winter Haven is the provider of public utilities along that corridor.

“There are other marketing factors for the area, but the big one is hospitality,” Bishop says. “The big economic driver there is LEGOLAND. ”

He says “there’s been a lot of interest in hotel development along that corridor” ever since LEGOLAND opened its own hotel just steps away from the theme park on May 15.

Just a few miles southwest of LEGOLAND, Florida, on 318 acres formerly owned by the city, is the increasingly busy CSX Intermodal Rail Terminal. It’s the world’s most advanced intermodal facility for the transfer of specialized freight containers from railway trailers to tractor-trailer trucks and vice versa. A key inland port in the Florida Department of Transportation’s Strategic Intermodal System, the year-and-half-old CSX terminal has the capacity to process up to 300,000 containers a year and is designed for scalable expansion as freight volumes grow. Primary rail connections to and from the CSX terminal are Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.

Adjacent to the CSX terminal property is another 932 acres that the city of Winter Haven agreed in May 2014 to sell for $15 million to two Chicago-based companies — GEM Capital Realty and Clayco Inc. — doing business jointly as Winter Haven Industrial Investors LLC. The joint company is developing the property in stages as the home of the Central Florida Intermodal Logistics Center (CFILC), which Bishop says has the potential to offer 9 million square feet of commercial space for warehousing, distribution and offices — all with close access to the CSX terminal. The first building on the property, a 407,000-square-foot structure, is almost complete, Bishop says.

Further commercial development nearby is possible on 600 acres — known as the Stokes property — that straddles State Road 60 just south of the CSX terminal and the CFILC. Bishop says the property is approved for construction of up to 6 million square feet in commercial structures.

Each of these sites — the intermodal terminal, the CFILC and the Stokes property — is strategically placed now along the route of the proposed Central Polk Parkway. The parkway is a proposed toll highway that would loop south from the Polk Parkway west of Winter Haven, parallel S.R. 60 to the east and then roughly parallel State Road 17 north to Interstate 4.

Transportation planners and economic development officials see the Central Polk Parkway providing both relief for traffic on S.R. 60 and U.S. 27 and another important boost for the county’s transportation, distribution, and logistics network. Truck traffic from the CSX terminal and the CFILC would have direct access to the parkway from Logistics Parkway, which runs from S.R. 60 north to the terminal and connects with Intermodal Drive, the primary road for the CFILC.

Bishop says the Central Polk Parkway already is 30 percent into the design phase. “It’s on everybody’s radar,” he says. “They’re just trying to find out how to fund it.”

Not to be overlooked or minimized in Winter Haven’s overall economic growth and development is the heart of the city — its downtown area and the quickening pace of development and revitalization there. One of the features of the Winter Haven EDC website is a table that counts up the economic progress downtown the past few years in the number of new net businesses (77), net new jobs (406), and total development projects (97).

“We did some counting and found that over a 10-year period, there will be $100 million worth of investment downtown by the end of next year (2016),” Bishop says.

The investment has been both public and private, Bishop says, adding that investments in additional technology at the former Verizon buildings downtown was key to attracting the Merlin Entertainments North American headquarters to Winter Haven.

Much of the private investment downtown has been by the Winter Haven-based Six/Ten LLC development company, which counts its many projects the new and upscale RainGarden Townhouse Apartments — “the first residential development in downtown Winter Haven in 25 years,” Bishop says.

“Six/Ten really stepped up and bought some buildings downtown” for redevelopment, Bishop says.

Another downtown residential development under way is Tupelo View, a 70-unit apartment complex that replaces a vacant lot and orange grove near the Winter Haven Area Transit terminal, Trailhead Park and Winter Haven City Hall.

Also invested heavily in the city’s core is locally owned Tom Wolf Co. LLC, and a few blocks north of downtown, on First Street North, is Winter Haven Hospital, which new owner BayCare Health System will expand with a $51 million investment announced earlier this year.

“There could be a lot of spin-offs from that hospital expansion, with additional doctors’ offices and medical clinics,” Bishop says. “First Street is really becoming a medical corridor for doctors and clinics, and all of that helps downtown.”

Bishop says the downtown area also should get a significant economic boost from a recent change in the city’s Land Development Code. The code now allows small-scale manufacturing downtown — the kind of manufacturing that supports and promotes “artisan” enterprises.

The code change marries production with retail, Bishop says, giving businesses the ability to sell on site the products they manufacture. “It’s sort of the cottage industry concept,” he says. “Stitch on Central (a screen printing and embroidery business) and The Cheese Room (a specialty foods shop) are the first fruits of that.”

The code change also is making possible downtown Winter Haven’s first craft beer brewery, Grove Roots Brewing Company, which city resident Joseph Dunham says he wants to open in mid-2016. The brewery will feature a 15-barrel production area and an 80-seat tasting room.

Though small in comparison with the major investments made in Winter Haven by companies like Merlin Entertainments and CSX, public spending several years ago paved the way for the resurgence in downtown Winter Haven today, Bishop says.

“It was a good decision, in retrospect, when the city located the library downtown (in 2004),” he says. “It made it more desirable to come downtown; it made it a destination, a walking destination.

“And then you had the streetscaping, the addition of the Central Park Trail, and the improvements to Central Park. All of that really helped in promoting downtown.”

Bishop points out that downtown Winter Haven today is the site of some kind of community event almost every week. The same couldn’t be said a decade ago.

“That public investment has really paid off,” he says. “The private investment has followed the public investment.”

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