The two men, who work to promote economic development in Osceola and Polk counties, agreed that no matter how negatively some local residents feel about the state of the economy right now – whether they consider it anemic, too sluggish, or discouraging – there’s a lot being done behind the scenes that will benefit the jobs picture in the near future.
“This is a great place to be,” said McDuff, the senior business development manager for the Central Florida Development Council of Polk County. “Big things are happening here in Polk.”
On Wednesday, McDuff and Fisher, Osceola County’s county manager, were invited to address the businesses in Poinciana that are members of the Poinciana Area Council. The council’s monthly meeting was held at the Solivita development.
“Today our focus is on economic development,” said Wendy Farrell, chairman of the council. Noting that Poinciana, which is divided between Polk and Osceola counties, was hard hit by the collapse of the housing market, Farrell said she wanted to hear from the economic development offices in both counties, to see what’s being done to boost the regional economy.
“We’re in the process of identifying long term projects,” she said.
McDuff said Polk County’s excellent location, right in the center of the state and along the I-4 corridor, makes the county an ideal place to attract new businesses.
“When I talk to companies about Polk County, I like to talk about our location,” he said. “What that means for companies is access. We’re in the Tampa/Orlando/I-4 corridor, and people relate to that. We’ve been looking at the resources of a region that we can offer a company.”
It’s already working, McDuff said. He noted that a host of new firms have relocated to Polk, including Mission Foods – which brought along 133 jobs – Xpedx (55 jobs), Steripak (65 jobs) and Sykes Enterprises (127 jobs).
What they recognized, he said, was a great location between two major cities, and a hard-working local labor force.
“We’re excited about our announcements so far,” he said.
The county is also focusing on generating more business development along the U.S. 27 corridor, McDuff said.
“Haines City has been a focal point for a lot of that growth,” he said, noting that the city’s position hosting the Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center has enabled city leaders to work to attract a number of other, small medical offices.
“They’ve targeted health services as a growth industry,” McDuff said.
Polk State College is establishing a Northeast Polk campus in the region, he added, which will help improve the skills of the local residents, and the presence of the Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, which opened July 1, likewise should help attract more firms to Polk.
“This will provide opportunities for businesses to come here because of the university presence,” he said.
Over in Winter Haven, that city has been experiencing solid growth with the opening of Legoland Florida last October, and the efforts by city leaders to recruit technology-based services to a new high tech corridor in the city’s downtown.
That city should experience even stronger growth with the future opening of the CSX Integrated Logistics Center, which is bringing 1,400 construction jobs to the new center for freight rail transportation.
“This is going to be an economic game-changer once it opens,” McDuff said. “The prospect for job creation there is enormous.”
Fisher said Osceola County is also looking for new ways to attract businesses, and has been aggressively taking advantage of the county’s close proximity to the Lake Nona Medical City. It’s a health and life sciences park in a master-planned community in southeast Orlando, which hosts the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.
Bordering on Lake Nona, Osceola County had made a similar effort to attract more health care firms, Fisher noted.
“We had been taking the same approach for about 10 years, and it wasn’t working,” he said.
But one thing county leaders are doing differently now, he said, is putting a focus on ways to promote the entire county, and not just the parts already doing well.
“We are one community with one set of resources,” he said. “In Osceola County, we have a huge land inventory that we could use to bring in any type of business that we want.”
Some members of PAC, though, said they feel Poinciana is often left out of the efforts to promote the regional economy.
“I’m going to be a broken record and say that Poinciana is never recognized as it should be,” said Annette Brown-Best, who lives on the Osceola County side of Poinciana.
Jeanette Coughenour, the manager of the community’s homeowners association, the Association of Poinciana Villages, agreed, saying “Poinciana is Polk and Osceola counties. We know we need development of commercial on both sides, desperately.”
Fisher said Osceola County’s economic development team works regularly with their counterparts in Polk County, and he said they tend to promote the entire region, not just their individual counties.
“It’s all one community,” Fisher said. “No one wins out over someone else. I think our approach should be when someone comes in, take them all over the county.”
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