DAVENPORT – Looking out onto a vacant field, and, just off in the distance, a huge shopping plaza, Sam Johnson said this section of Davenport near the exit for Interstate 4 in some ways sums up the recent history of Polk County and its economic transformation.
“Many of us who grew up in this area remember this being orange groves, and then Circus World coming in,” said Johnson, the chairman of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.
The shopping plaza within walking distance of where Johnson was standing is Posner Park, the continuously expanding outdoor commercial center that’s become home to a growing number of big box stores, restaurants and smaller retailers.
“To see the transition into a shopping center — well, my wife will tell you is probably the best of all,” Johnson said, noting that as Northeast Polk County has grown in recent years with new residential developments and commercial expansions like Posner Park, the county has been trying to play catch up and meet the increasing infrastructure needs of the region.
As Johnson joined a group of other county dignitaries, he was standing right behind the reason for the celebration: the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony for the Ernie Caldwell Boulevard and overpass.
The nearly four-mile-long Ernie Caldwell Boulevard interconnects Posner Park, FDC Grove Road and Home Run Boulevard to U.S. 27 South, then travels easterly to link U.S. 27 and Posner Park to County Road 54 by way of the recently opened 1.4 long mile Pine Tree Trail.
Polk commissioners dedicated the new roadway in honor of late former commissioner and environmental and agricultural advocate Ernie Caldwell, who was noted for his long range vision on behalf of Polk’s future.
The opening of the roadway, Johnson said, demonstrated how far Northeast Polk County has come from its rural days as a long stretch of vacant citrus groves.
“It’s been amazing to come out here,” Johnson said, adding that the growth in Northeast Polk County convinced commissioners of the need to make critical investments like this one in the region’s infrastructure needs.
“We said, ‘Hey, we’ve really got to prepare for the future and put the roadway and infrastructure in here,’ “ he said. “I think we have done a good job of that, and we have some great plans to keep doing that. We will continue to pursue capital improvement projects that will continue to spur investment.”
Polk County Manager Jim Freeman noted that Caldwell helped create the program that enabled the roadway to get built, the creation of the North Ridge Community Redevelopment Agency, which collects tax dollars from Northeast Polk and reinvests it in the community.
“We’re looking to the future,” Freeman said. “Every study we look at shows the future – 10 years from now, 15 years from now – there will be service problems on U.S. 27.”
Michael Wadley, chairman of the North Ridge CRA advisory board, said the roadway serves the needs of the increasing number of people living in and doing business within Northeast Polk.
“As you drive on this new highway, you’ll marvel at the balance of the good transportation planning with the quality construction,” he said, adding that the improved access provided by Ernie Caldwell Boulevard will boost job creation here by encouraging more businesses to relocate to this location.
“I firmly believe as a planner that if we build better places, we build better lives, and I hope we continue to do that in the future,” he said.
As part of the celebration, there was an inaugural “North Ridge Bridge Run” 5K at 8:30 a.m., followed by an antique car parade.
“The Lakeland Cruisers Classic Car Club will be taking the members of the Caldwell family along Caldwell Boulevard,” said Polk County Commissioner Todd Dantzler, who served as the master of ceremonies for the event.
He also noted the large crowd that had gathered around the small stage set up for the speakers, and who were on hand for the ribbon cutting between Polk County government leaders and members of the Caldwell family.
“It’s so important to see so many people come out here for this event,” Dantzler said. “I’m proud of the tremendous commitment to growth here in Northeast Polk. You can literally see that the county lives its mission, which is to enhance the quality of life here in Polk County.”
Wadley said it was also a good example of the county government working with private businesses to help grow a region that once had little more than vast, wide open fields.
“It’s been a real public-private partnership, and I’m proud to have been a part of this,” Wadley said.
“It’s certainly been a long time coming,” said former Polk County Commissioner Neil Combee of the new roadway. “This will serve the Northeast section of Polk County for a very long time.”
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