LAKELAND – In the world of real estate, Rodney Carson says, there’s one rule that applies above all else.
“As they always say in real estate, it’s location, location, location,” he said.
That same rule can also apply to the world of business and commerce, said Carson, the director of economic development at the Central Florida Development Council in Auburndale.
“And that is a great location,” he added.
That location is a highway in North Lakeland, U.S. 98, that’s experiencing an upswing in recent business growth and activity. U.S. 98, an east-west highway that cuts through Lakeland on the way to the Florida Panhandle and then westward into Mississippi, isn’t even a new highway — it was built in 1933. But for years, it’s also been known as highway that motorists traveling along Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa can jump onto if they need to make a stop in Lakeland, or are looking for a place to eat. The highway also takes motorists conveniently into downtown Lakeland.
And after some years of sluggish growth, business is beginning to pick up again there, Carson said, with new restaurants and retail shops coming in, including a LongHorn Steakhouse, which just announced the opening of a new location at 3392 U.S. 98 North. The 6,200-square foot restaurant is expected to employ 85 workers and seat 240 patrons.
It follows the opening last September of the GFS Marketplace at 3723 U.S. 98, and then a Big Lots box store at the Palm Center on Florida Avenue last October.
In addition, Gateway Commons, a new shopping plaza, is expected to be built on U.S. 98 in 2012 across the street from the Lakeland Square Mall.
That kind of business growth, Carson said, owes much to what he said is that critical issue: location. As Tampa and Orlando continue to grow, he said, Lakeland is conveniently located in-between those two major cities, and U.S. 98 North’s easy proximity to I-4 makes it an appealing place for new businesses seeking the business of those interstate motorists.
“It’s right off I-4, and it’s a great location between Tampa and Orlando,” Carson said. “Highway 98 has gone through a transition in the past number of years, and that includes an upgrade in the retail sector and improvements in transportation, so it’s become a destination point for retail.”
The city of Lakeland also deserves some credit for that, said Steve Scruggs, executive director of the Lakeland Economic Development Council. He said the city invested in infrastructure improvements on U.S. 98 in recent years to make it more appealing to new businesses, and those efforts are paying off.
“The city has been trying to get water and sewer down on (U.S.) 98 to try to attract businesses,” he said.
LongHorn already has a restaurant at Lakeside Village Court in Lakeland, said Tara Gray, spokeswoman for the restaurant chain, and that restaurant did so well that they began looking for a second spot in the city, and recognized U.S. 98’s potential.
“This is our second LongHorn in the Lakeland area,” she said. “We do have another location at Lakeside Village Court which opened in May 2006, and that restaurant has performed very well for us. Since that time, we’ve received outstanding support from the Lakeland community, so we decided to open at a second location.”
U.S. 98 North was an obvious choice, she added.
“We believe it’s an excellent location,” Gray said. “It’s got great visibility off Interstate 4, and also our sister brand restaurants Red Lobster and Olive Garden are close by, and they are doing very well on Highway 98. We’ve had a great response from the local community.”
Just a few years ago, it was hard to attract businesses like this one, said Celine Dufresne, who runs Quantum Leap Commercial Realty in Lakeland. The collapse in the housing market stripped a lot of businesses of the ability to attract the customers they needed to stay open, and that included some companies on U.S. 98 that have shut down in the past few years, she added.
“It has been very affected by the recession,” Dufresne said of U.S. 98. “Polk is the third in the nation in terms of foreclosures. A lot of the businesses there were not making money.”
Now that’s starting to change, she said, as the overall economy in Lakeland gets stronger.
“I can tell you the economy is getting better and businesses are rebounding,” she said. “I’m pretty positive about 2012.”
U.S. 98 is also appealing, she said, to people who want to start their own business – in particular, by opening a franchise. They see U.S. 98 as the perfect highway for solid traffic that brings the customers right to them, Dufresne said.
“98 is a good location,” she said. “Depending on the type of franchise they want to start, if it’s a business where people need to come to them, 98 will be important.”
U.S. 98 also appears to be benefitting from an overall improvement in Lakeland’s economic climate, said Kathleen L. Munson, president of the Lakeland area Chamber of Commerce.
“We do see several business openings there in North Lakeland, and it’s a very positive environment there for continued growth,” she said, citing the LongHorn opening as a recent example.
“I think with the growth in all sectors and all quadrants of the city, we have seen some very positive growth along that Highway 98 corridor, and we’re looking for good things to come that way,” she added.
The chamber often hears from retailers interested in that highway, she said, adding that the chamber is only too eager to let them know what U.S. 98 has to offer.
“I think the retail segment of that business growth is going to stimulate other ancillary businesses,” she said.
The highway has another major asset, Munson added: the Lakeland Square Mall at 3800 U.S. 98 North, which also draws motorists off I-4.
“I think with the Lakeland Square Mall there, that has been a magnetic in drawing residents and consumers off of I-4 and onto the 98 corridor,” Munson said. “And I think from an investment and development standpoint, that has always been seen as a very positive development area, and now we’ve got LongHorn and several other businesses going in there, that is only going to continue. We have seen very positive growth there.”
Both the city and U.S. 98 have also benefitted, Munson said, from the new era at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, which in June celebrated eight new direct flights that have helped to spur more traffic in and out of the facility.
“With getting the charter service of Direct Air here in Lakeland, we’re seeing increased visits coming to the area, and also an economic impact from the airport itself and the various businesses and services that have been built around it,” Munson said. That helps make the entire city a stronger magnet for new companies, she said.
And location helps, Carson reiterated, which is why U.S. 98 appeals to new businesses eyeing the motorists who can easily jump onto that highway from Interstate 4 to get a meal or do some shopping on their way to either Orlando or Tampa.
“I think for Polk County as a whole, our proximity to the Orlando and Tampa markets are coming into view with people looking to start businesses here,” Carson said. “You don’t have to be in either of those cities. By being in Polk County, you have access to two international airports, and people are beginning to realize you can be in Polk County but still have access to all the major urban markets. We have been working diligently on that in the past few years. There’s great synergies with our efforts there, more than ever in the past.”
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