Regional economic development — the sharing, collaborating, coordinating and cooperating kind of approach — works almost every time it’s tried. There’s a perfect example of that in the tremendous economic development news that broke in our own backyard just a few weeks ago.
Taking you back to July 20, Merlin Entertainments, the parent company of the nearby Legoland Florida Resort and the world’s second largest attractions operator, announced that it was expanding its Central Florida operations — its worldwide operations, really — and doing it at two locations right here in eastern Polk County.
A site in the Longleaf Business Park in south Lake Wales — the very nice building once occupied several years ago by a Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership — will become the regional home for Merlin Magic Making, described by Merlin Entertainments as “the creative heart of the business.”
Merlin Magic Making employees — in 13 sites internationally — are “thinkers, dreamers, doers, (and) achievers,” the company says, “tasked with designing and delivering world-class attractions, hotels, and other major projects around the globe.”
In addition, all the Merlin Magic Making model builders for this area will work at Longleaf Business Park, which really will be Merlin Entertainments’ hub for creative operations in the eastern United States. The company’s sixth team of model builders and designers, making their magic in Lake Wales with the aid of sophisticated computer hardware and software, will help to support the expanding Legoland Resorts and Legoland Discovery Centers around the world.
In the July announcement, Merlin Entertainments said it also had secured a downtown Winter Haven site rich in IT infrastructure and support for use as a new customer care center.
Officials with Merlin Entertainments tell us that each of its two new East Polk centers will be fully operational by this fall and that each initially will employ about 50 people. If the company needs to increase services and employment, the properties in Lake Wales and Winter Haven are well situated for future expansion.
Merlin Entertainments’ selection of East Polk locations for the Merlin Magic Making shop and customer care center is nothing short of marvelous, because these two operations — especially the Merlin Magic Making portion for Lake Wales — could have gone anywhere. By anywhere, I mean anywhere outside of East Polk, anywhere outside of Polk County and even anywhere outside of Florida. Even with Legoland Florida Resort located just outside of the Winter Haven city limits and just a few miles from Lake Wales, Merlin Entertainments had many suitors for its new centers. From an economic development/business-recruiting perspective, these were highly competitive projects.
Lake Wales came into play as a possible location for one of the Merlin centers well more than a year ago. That was after plans to put both centers in Winter Haven could not be worked out. The team here at the Lake Wales Economic Development Council worked with Bruce Lyon, the president of the Winter Haven Economic Development Council, and his team to marry the projects together in a way would keep them close to one another but in separate and more suitable locations.
A lot of parts were moving to get this done — to meet the needs, goals, and objectives of Merlin Entertainments, and to further develop and diversify the local economy. The Lake Wales and Winter Haven EDCs were involved, of course, but so was the Central Florida Development Council, Enterprise Florida at the state level, the city commissions in Lake Wales and Winter Haven, and the Polk County Commission. They all came together to do a great thing for our customer and a great thing for our county.
This is a perfect example of regional collaboration — the way we would like for all of these projects to happen. This is how regional economic development works for all of us, rather than having just one community trying to keep a new business project all to itself.
Work to put a planned new $200 million Walmart distribution center in Davenport is another good example of collaborative regional economic development. This distribution center has the potential to create more than 600 jobs — jobs with good wages and jobs just 30 minutes away in a drive from Lake Wales. Lake Wales EDC was not directly involved with the Walmart distribution center project but Lake Wales residents will benefit from the job opportunities.
Closer to home, the Lake Wales EDC and its economic development partners see the new Merlin Entertainments projects as being a win for Winter Haven and Lake Wales, a win for Polk County and Florida, and a win for the company. When it came time to choose one or more sites for expansion, Merlin Entertainments ultimately chose our area, and we’re thrilled about that!