POINCIANA – It started with a group of volunteers, who had a single, clear vision: to help people in Poinciana find much-needed jobs.
Now those local activists may be ready to shift to a more ambitious and expansive goal: to give Poinciana its first full time economic development agency.
It’s a great example, said Nick Murdock, of a small group of people having a major impact by reaching out to business leaders to sell the benefits of what he called a “forgotten community,” and selling its benefits – as well as its brightening future.
“If we keep the focus and do the right things, the right things will happen for the community,” Murdock said.
Murdock is the chairman of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, or PEDA, which formed last summer with a simple goal: to help Poinciana residents get ready for what were expected to be up to 7,000 new construction and medical jobs coming to the community of 84,000 residents, through a variety of projects, including the Poinciana Medical Center – the community’s first hospital – and the Poinciana Parkway, a new toll road.
PEDA’s initial goals were modest: to hold an informational fair that helped residents put together a resume and learn how to apply for those construction jobs. But in the months that followed, PEDA began reaching out to private businesses, educational institutions, public sector service agencies and others to convince them to consider Poinciana as a good place for future investments.
So far, it’s worked, with agencies as diverse as Valencia College, the Salvation Army and TECO interested in expanding into Poinciana.
In addition, Murdock said he got contacted by the members of a Chicago Consortium of private financial investors, which had read about PEDA’s work and were interested in learning more about making a major investment in Poinciana.
“We do have a verbal commitment from them – not a contractual commitment yet – to invest $100 million in this community,” Murdock said.
Confident that this agreement is likely to move forward, Murdock said PEDA is now working to incorporate as an official Representative Organization of Greater Poinciana, operating with a budget and full time staff with the goal of bringing jobs, new businesses, social services, and a long-term master plan to Poinciana.
“We felt the best way of organizing our incorporation structure is to have the five founders of PEDA get together,” Murdock said. “We want to maintain our purpose, which is to promote economic development in Poinciana. In order to have the maximum effect in the community, we have to have credibility in the community.”
The purpose of incorporation, he said, would be to better service Poinciana as an official organization. It would also open up opportunities for PEDA to secure state, federal and private grants as a local agency.
“I have reached outside of this two-county community to get advice on how to run a civic group, and they have all recommended we go this route as far as incorporation goes,” he said.
In addition to Murdock, the PEDA founders were Annette Brown Best, Fernando Valverde, Nestor Nuesch, and Wendy Farrell, who will serve as its board of directors through the incorporation process. Murdock will become PEDA’s first president and board chairman, Farrell will be the vice president, and Nuesch will serve as the executive director who operates the agency — initially on a volunteer basis, and then with a full-time salary when PEDA secures the funds needed to operate.
“We know eventually if things work out, we’ll need to have a profressional staff,” Murdock said. “We first want to achieve our mission statement, and managing our day to day operations.”
Among PEDA’s other short term goals are putting together a brochure and booklet on Poinciana, and creating a website for the agency.
“I think we want to structure ourselves first,” Murdock said. “We’ll be moving forward on organizing this.”
PEDA held its first meeting of the new year on Tuesday at the offices of Manhattan Kraft construction on Poinciana Boulevard.
Part of the reason they expect to be able to incorporate, Murdock said, is because a group of private investors based in Chicago reached out to him in November, then flew out to Poinciana to meet with the community’s government representative, Polk County Commissioner Todd Danzler, and representatives of the leading developer in Poinciana, Avatar.
“They were both very positive about our incorporation, and even more positive about announcing as quickly as possible the investment group, which gives us credibility,” Murdock said. “I think the community will be very positive about it.”
In the meantime, PEDA will continue to organize jobs fairs that match actual employers looking to hire people with local residents looking for work.
Valverde said there’s no question Poinciana has been through some tough times in recent years. The community of 10 villages rode a residential construction boom in the past decade, and the population soared from 20,000 to 84,000.
But the collapse of the housing market and the credit crunch left Poinciana with a host of problems: a high inventory of unsold homes, plummeting home prices, a high foreclosure rate, and a double digit unemployment rate – 11 percent in Osceola County and 12 percent in Polk County.
“The problems in Poinciana are so diverse,” Valverde said.
But at the same time, he noted, PEDA’s initial mission has broadened considerably. Rather than just looking to match residents with the oncoming construction jobs, PEDA is now working to bring colleges and social service providers here as well.
“The agenda is big, but it’s like going to a restaurant,” Valverde said. “You don’t just want soup, you want lobster and everything else.”
And PEDA, he added, is “here to meet the challenges that exist.”
Nuesch said it’s important to repeatedly point out how large Poinciana is – with more people than neighboring cities like St. Cloud and Haines City – and that this growing community still lacks everything from a social service agency to a major highway.
“It’s growing, and the largest unincorporated area in the nation,” he said.
With the announcement earlier this month by Osceola Regional Medical Center, the hospital in Kissimmee, that it would hold a groundbreaking ceremony on the Poinciana Medical Center in February, the community is finally seeing the beginning of highly anticipated work on these important projects.
“We need some successes,” said PEDA member Jeff Goldmacher, “and people will jump on board.”
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