What’s in the Cards for 2017 for Local Economic Development?

As I noted last time in this space, 2016 was a very positive year for economic development activity in and around Lake Wales, and each of us associated with the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development Council began work the first week of January with the strong belief that 2017 would be even better. These past four or so weeks, excellent conversations, promising business recruitment efforts, behind-the-scenes work on a variety of fronts related to the local economy, and general optimism about the overall U.S., Florida, and Polk County economies have only reinforced that belief.

What are the EDC’s plans, expectations, and hopes for the balance of 2017? Broadly speaking, there are several, which I’m excited to share here.

• Lake Wales Main Street — Main Street is the primary organization for revitalizing downtown Lake Wales, supporting and expanding the businesses there, and planning and promoting community events in the city’s core commercial district, which encompasses about five city blocks. The EDC leadership, board, and staff look forward to the soon hiring of a full-time Main Street director. This is key not only to the program’s success and continued business development downtown but also to program qualification with the state of Florida. Lake Wales Main Street isn’t an arm of the Lake Wales city government — it’s a 30-year-old local private partnership that relies on memberships, sponsorships, grants, and donations — but the city is chipping in some funds for the new director’s salary. With very few distressed properties remaining, downtown Lake Wales is well on its way to full revitalization, and that’s essential to overall EDC goals. With a full-time director vigorously pursuing development of small businesses downtown and actively engaged in event management, a finely tuned and well-humming Lake Wales Main Street program can only help boost the already-positive quality of life found in greater Lake Wales and can only help the EDC recruit more businesses and industry to the area.

• Lake Wales Commerce & Technology Park — Known for years as Longleaf Business Park, this commercial development on the city’s south side is, for the first time, now under full private ownership. The EDC is expecting increased activity there, perhaps with an announcement before the end of the second quarter about construction on a couple of light manufacturing plants on park property purchased just before the end of 2016.

• Near Eagle Ridge Mall — This area, at the intersection of U.S. 27 and Chalet Suzanne Road/Thompson Nursery Road, remains ripe for development. A new Wawa super convenience store and auto fueling station has had city approval since July 2012, and most everyone expects construction to start on the 5,537-square-foot store early this year.

• Hospitality — Hotel development is in high gear in nearby Winter Haven, home of the truly popular Legoland Florida Resort, and this very well could be the year for announcements about new hotel construction along U.S. 27 on Lake Wales’ north side. Last year, the Lake Wales EDC fielded 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, just a few minutes’ drive from the Legoland.

• Health and Medical — Last year was a banner year for development of new health-care facilities and services in greater Lake Wales, and we expect more of the same for 2017. This is an economic growth area that shows no sign of slowing down.

• Lake Wales Municipal Airport — Construction is set to begin in March on a $3 million project to lengthen one of the airport’s two 4,000-foot-long runways to 5,400 feet. This will make the airport accessible to small corporate jets in all kinds of weather conditions, wet or dry. New construction locally means more spending locally, and this construction project is huge.

• Your Lake Wales EDC — The EDC has an excellent and very involved group of partner-investors — partners that represent a wide variety of local business and community sectors. Additional partners are always welcome, with a special invitation for those involved in the industrial base. Come and join representatives from current industrial leaders Florida’s Natural and Chemical Containers, and add your input to the economic development dialogue.

There are so many ways further economic development can go in 2017 — and so many forms it can take. We can’t say for sure how it will all shake out, but we’re highly confident that we’ll be able to report to you at this time next year that it’s all been great.