If someone were to stop me on the street during this week leading up to Christmas and ask me if 2016 was a good year for economic development in greater Lake Wales, I would honestly, happily, and excitedly say “Yes!” It has been a good year for economic development locally — good and even great in many respects.
As we await the start of a brand-new year, let’s list just a few of the many local economic highlights from the one we’re closing out, count up all the positives from 2016, and let them speak for themselves.
- The year got off to a real bang with the Jan. 13, 2016, opening of Merlin Entertainments’ Merlin Magic Making facility at the since-renamed Longleaf Business Park off U.S. Highway 27 South in Lake Wales. The site is one of just a few creative hubs for Merlin in the United States — a center for designing and building hundreds of LEGO models for Merlin’s Legoland theme parks and other attractions around the globe.
- Lake Wales Medical Center introduced this year a number of significant facility, service, technology, and campus additions and improvements. Overall, healthcare services in Lake Wales received a real boost this year with the addition of new facilities. Examples include ATR Advance Technological Radiology, P.A. (formerly AT Radiology), which replaced a limited-services medical imaging center in Lake Wales with a new full-service center near Eagle Ridge Mall, and Central Florida Health Care, which opened a multi-services medical center at 305 W. Central Ave.
- Adams Homes is helping to address the big local need for new housing for executives and professionals in middle management. The company launched construction in the new Tower Gate Estates subdivision, located just footsteps away from the entrance to Bok Tower Gardens in north Lake Wales. A gated community located at 1116 Tower Gate Circle, off Burns Avenue, Tower Gate Estates features homes priced between $180,000 and $185,000 and a private park located right inside the community.
- The city of Lake Wales brought Alex Vacha on board as manager of the 88-year-old Lake Wales Municipal Airport. A 27-year-old U.S. Army-trained Blackhawk helicopter pilot, Vacha joined the city staff just ahead of a huge project that will impact airport operations for many years to come. One of the airport’s two 4,000-foot-long runways will be lengthened to 5,400 feet — more than a mile — which will make the airport accessible to small corporate jets in all kinds of weather conditions, wet or dry. The $3 million project (90 percent of the cost is coming from the Federal Aviation Administration) is scheduled to start in March 2017. Vacha’s goals for the airport include making it more pilot friendly and more competitive with other local general aviation airports for flight operations and fuel sales.
- The CSX Central Florida Intermodal Logistical Center in nearby Winter Haven is fully operational, resulting in more commercial truck traffic in, through, and all around Lake Wales. Increased truck traffic means increased commerce, a key component of positive economic development.
- Development along U.S. Highway 27, both north and south of State Road 60, was in higher gear this year. Opposite Shoppes on the Ridge, plans call for the construction of a new Wawa super convenience store and auto fueling station. Construction is complete at the site of a new AutoZone auto parts store near Batteries Plus, off U.S. 27 and across the highway from Publix and Shoppes on the Ridge. Along U.S. 27 South, south of S.R. 60, plans call for the construction of a large new Love’s Truck Stop.
- The Lake Wales Economic Development Council responded this year to inquiries from representatives of at least five hotel or hotel-development companies that seem very interested in building new accommodations on U.S. 27 north, near Eagle Ridge Mall and just a few minutes’ drive from the Legoland Florida Resort in Winter Haven
- On June 30, Capernaum Ministries opened to the public the beautiful new Capernaum Lakeside Lodge and Conference Center. The center is located where Timberlane and Masterpiece roads meet on the southwest shore of Lake Pierce, just north of Lake Wales. The lodge opened following completion of a quick but extensive renovation project on a stately two-story structure that was built in 1925 and first used as a hotel. The lodge features 12 sleeping rooms, a banquet hall for meetings and events, a restaurant, a magnificent view of Lake Pierce, a boat dock, and abundant outdoor space for large events.
- In the equally important arenas of culture, arts, entertainment, and overall quality of life, a big development was the staging of the very first CountryFlo Music and Camping Festival. The festival, which featured four stages and more than 30 top-name country artists, was held at the newly renovated 420-acre Triple Canopy Ranch in Lake Wales. Also, volunteers behind Main Street Lake Wales announced big plans to “re-imagine” the city’s historic downtown area and make it an even more lively place to do business and have some family-friendly fun.
- With the end of 2016 in sight, the major Lake Wales commercial development known since 2001 as Longleaf Business Park received a new name and perhaps a positive new identity. By a Nov. 15 vote of the Lake Wales City Commission, Longleaf became the Lake Wales Commerce & Technology Park. Soon afterward, the Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency closed on the purchase of about 25 acres worth of commercial park lots by Robert W. Richard, president of CRV Development, Inc., of Massachusetts. Richard paid a little more than $1 million for all the lots combined, providing the CRA with a significant sum of money for future redevelopment projects locally and putting the lots on the city’s property tax roll for the first time. There’s great hope that the property Richard now owns eventually will be home to two new companies engaged in light manufacturing.
Economic development is not one or two big business-related events or announcements but rather a process. The process involves consistent, persistent, and often behind-the-scene endeavors — recruitment, research, phone calls, meetings, mailings, seminars, visits, brainstorming, conversations a-plenty, and networking locally and at seminars, showcases, and conventions near and far— that we hope will lead to many big announcements from companies choosing to locate here. This work is undertaken by the Lake Wales Chamber-EDC staff but tremendously influenced, supported, and encouraged by a wonderful group of investor-partners, not the least of which is the city of Lake Wales.
It is our pleasure and privilege at the Lake Wales Chamber-EDC to work on behalf on Lake Wales-area economic development and toward a better and brighter future for everyone who lives, works, and even visits here. Yes, the local economic news was grand in 2016. The foundation is solid and the stage is set for an even more grand 2017, and that’s exciting!
Here’s wishing you a very merry and joyous Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!