Economic development — the concerted and coordinated effort to bring more businesses, industry, jobs, commerce and even vitality to a community or region — can happen in many ways.
When the phrase “economic development” comes up in casual conversation, often the first thought folks have is that of a large out-of-the area company announcing plans to build a huge new facility of one sort or another on the outer edge of a city and put hundreds of people to work. That does happen, of course, and there are hundreds of great examples of it all over Polk County, for which we all can be grateful
Economic development, though, also can take the form of assisting a company already here with plans for expansion, modernization, or diversification. It can happen with a major downtown redevelopment project. It can happen, too, with broad efforts to boost incomes, grow the tax base, and support the cause(s) to improve a variety of social indicators, such as life expectancy rate, infant mortality rate, literacy rate, dropout rate, and poverty rate.
For the purpose of this column, economic development also involves, importantly, the aggressive and persistent work in the areas of in-fill development and, separately, redevelopment and re-use.
In-fill development involves recruiting new businesses to buy and build on commercially zoned land that is scattered about and typically located closer to a city’s center. We like to see undeveloped property, located next to or between established businesses, built upon and put to good commercial use.
Redevelopment and re-use involves the purchase and rehabilitation of developed property previously used for commercial enterprises but then shut down and abandoned — usually accompanied by the loss of local jobs. This kind of economic development has many positives:
- Older-but-closed commercial buildings and facilities get a new lease on life.
- Abandoned and unsightly properties get regular maintenance again, offering a more pleasant view from the road.
- Although they don’t have new buildings to construct, local contractors, subcontractors, tradesmen, and remodeling specialists are put to work with property rehabilitation and reconfiguring for new use.
- Importantly, new jobs are created for local residents.
- Replacement enterprises can launch operations much more quickly, not having to wait for new construction to be completed.
- Holes in a government tax base — created by closed businesses — are patched to some extent.
- Service companies have new opportunities, with new businesses, to expand their base of clients.
- Realtors and real estate brokers earn commissions that can be spent locally to produce more trade and business activity.
A fantastic example of redevelopment and re-use — a recent one and right here in greater Lake Wales — was the lead topic of last month’s column. That would be The Fence Outlet’s December purchase of the long-vacant and huge former International Paper box-making facility on State Road 60, just west of the city.
Work is under way to convert the 273,384-square-foot former box plant, sitting on about 50 acres of land, into a manufacturing and distribution center The Fence Outlet will use to support its seven Central Florida retail locations. Company officials have said they plan to start with a staff of about 100 employees. The hiring process began with a job fair at the new Fence Outlet property on Feb. 1.
There are other good — and local — redevelopment and re-use examples to note:
- A new location for MyEyeDr., an eye-care center, has opened at 1611 S.R. 60 E. The national company, with locations all along the U.S. East Coast and several in and around Chicago, did a first-class job remodeling an existing medical facility for its new use as an eye clinic.
- In early January, Lake Wales Medical Center officials had a groundbreaking ceremony for the hospital’s new 5,100-square-foot Wound Healing Center. The new center is being built on the site of an old doctor offices complex at the corner of State Road 60 and 11th Street.
- As mentioned last month, Harbor Freight Tools is coming to Lake Wales. It will fill the retail space formerly occupied by Big!Lots in the Orange Grove Shopping Center at 1366 S.R. 60 E. Opportunities for further redevelopment and re-use of the shopping center remain.
- On the north side of Lake Wales, on the southwest corner of U.S. Highway 27 and Thompson Nursery Road, an old motel and veterinary clinic were torn down to make way for an Aldi discount supermarket and two future outparcel businesses.
- On the opposite site of Thompson Nursery Road, more old buildings were demolished so the McGuire family could build a new auto dealership.
- Across U.S. 27, at the Eagle Ridge Mall, a not-for-profit community service organization is now using space once occupied by six small retail stores. Kingdom City Outreach (KCO) had its grand-opening celebration at the mall last October. For the right kind of innovative developer, business, or organization, the mall offers a variety of options for useable space.
- On a mall outparcel, right off U.S. 27, a large building that once housed a Toys R Us big-box retail store remains empty and up for sale or lease. The building is so large, it’s easy to see it being remodeled and subdivided for use by several enterprises.
- On the south side of Lake Wales, at the 164-acre Lake Wales Commerce & Technology Park (formerly Longleaf Business Park), progress continues in the effort to recruit buyers and tenants for vacant space there.
When it comes to vacant commercial structures, the chances for redevelopment and re-use are boosted significantly by effective marketing. If a property isn’t being brokered, if it isn’t listed in the real estate Multiple Listing Service, landing a deal can be a challenge. It took a while — almost five years, in fact — but the former International Paper plant was marketed well, and the effort ultimately produced a tremendously nice sale to The Fence Outlet. The thinking here is that the transaction will pay big dividends not only for the buyer but for the greater Lake Wales economy for many years to come.