Haines City gears up for the Ironman competition.

The Lake Eva Banquet Hall remains solidly booked -- a year in advance on weekends. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

HAINES CITY – It’s a busy time at the Lake Eva Park banquet hall, where an upcoming competition has left the Haines City Parks and Recreation Department scrambling to make last minute preparations.
“We’re certainly excited about this,” said Tommy Cassel, the rental facilities manager for the Lake Eva Banquet Hall. “We also have a couple of hundred volunteers we’ve recruited for this.”
The event that Lake Eva Park is gearing up for is Ironman 70.3 Florida, a three-day event that begins on Friday, May 18. Since it was established in 2006, Ironman 70.3 has become the fastest growing triathlon series in the world. Previously held at Walt Disney World Resort, the Ironman Foundation announced last December that it was moving the competition this year to Lake Eva Park, chosen because it’s close to the Central Florida attractions. The Ironman 70.3 races enable competitors to qualify for the Ironman World Championship 70.3, while IronKids Florida, a special activities event for children ages 6 to15, will be on the same weekend, on Saturday, May 19.
“It’s a five year contract that we signed with them to host here at Lake Eva Park,” Cassel said. “What we’re doing is monthly we’re meeting with Ironman officials, local fire and police departments, county EMS and tourism officials to go over everything we have to do.”
It’s been an exciting time for both park officials and the city, Cassel said.
“One of the things also that we did here for some of the events is hold two practices, one on April 14, and the other practice, the swim date, will be on May 6 from 9-11 (a.m.),” he said. “For the bike course, we have marked the tracks all the way down to Lake Wales, and marked those areas with temporary signage. But we’re getting permanent signage, which should be up in the next two weeks.”
The Ironman event is turning out to be a huge economic jolt for the Northeast Polk County economy, Cassel said. As he noted, it will bring hundreds of competitors and spectators to the city, while also providing a boost to another key industry on U.S. 27: vacation homes, or houses that are fully furnished and rented on a short term basis to tourists. That’s become a major industry in Northeast Polk County.
“It’s a big boost for the city, and a big boost for what we do here, and also for the local economy,” Cassel said. “Most of the athletes will be staying in those vacation rental homes up and down the (U.S.) 27 corridor. They (the competitors) have spread out throughout those vacation rental homes.”
The Ironman competition is also bringing more business to local merchants.
“They also ask for local ice vendors and local food vendors,” he said. “Everything they’ve done here has helped with our local economy.”
The Haines City/Northeast Polk County Chamber of Commerce is doing its best to drum up even more business for local companies, by using the upcoming Ironman event to highlight the restaurants and other places to visit in the city, said Betsy Weddington Aycock, executive director of the Haines City Chamber.
The Chamber’s Web site is already letting visitors know that if they’re coming to Haines City for the Ironman competition, they city has a lot to offer – including a lot of specialty restaurants that are worth checking out.
“What’s unique about here is we don’t have a lot of the chain restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster,” Aycock said. “But we do have an abundance of those smaller ones. When I travel, I like going to the little mom and pop restaurants. You can find the Outbacks anywhere. We definitely plan to advertise those restaurants on our Web site.”
What the city really could use right now, she added, is a brand hotel chain. Haines City is still trying to convince a major hotel to build in the city, but so far, the search is still on.
“Everybody is working on it, and it’s kind of like a waiting game,” Aycock said. “A lot of the hotels are waiting for the traffic to come through to Legoland and see what that traffic actually is. They’re going to wait and see. It’s still a goal of ours. We’re in desperate need, because if someone calls us here, we have to send them up to the I-4/(U.S.) 27 junction, or to Lake Wales, where there are a couple of new hotels by the Eagle Ridge Mall. Those really are the closest brand name hotels. We have a couple of smaller mom and pop hotels in Haines City, but a lot of people want to know where the brand name hotels are.”
The Ironman competition is also likely to put a spotlight on the success of the Lake Eva Banquet Hall at 799 Johns Ave., which has become a popular site for weddings, conventions and special event. Located on Lake Eva, the 30,000 square foot facility can accommodate from 196 to 1,409 people for special functions.
Aycock said in a sign of just how popular that banquet hall has gotten, sometimes the Chamber can’t even get a booking there for a business luncheon.
“They are booked, constantly,” she said. “As a Chamber, we’ll check the date books to try to schedule luncheons, and even we have a hard time. But that’s great. It’s not sitting there empty and not being utilized.”
“We’re actually booked solid a little over a year in advance for weekends,” Cassel said. “We try to keep it busy. That’s what we put it here for. And we want to continue to utilize it as much as we can.”

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