FOUR CORNERS – Cecilia Smith has spent the past few months visiting local businesses in South Lake County, from the Clermont area down to Four Corners. Her mission: to see if they’re hiring.
But Smith is hunting for a job for herself. Instead, she wants to see what can be done to encourage those business to start hiring more people – in particular, what the county government can do to help them add to their payrolls.
Those efforts are starting to pay off, she said.
“So far we have two larger companies looking to hire a total of 24 jobs, which we’re very happy about,” Smith said.
In November 2011, Lake County commissioners approved an ordinance to create an Enterprise Zone Development Agency as an 11-member group that assists in the development, implementation and annual review and update of three enterprise zones.
The idea was to designate certain neighborhoods as Enterprise Zones, and provide incentives for new businesses that relocate there, or existing ones that expand and create more jobs.
The proposed enterprise zones cover three areas of this geographically large county – the central part of the county (Leesburg), the northern end (Eustis) and South Lake County near Clermont and Four Corners (Mascotte).
“We have a brand new department that’s been revitalized,” said Smith, who oversees the South Lake County enterprise zone. “We’ve divided the county into three regions, and we’ve all been scheduling business visits as part of our goals.”
On Thursday, Smith made a presentation to the Four Corners Are Council, the group of business owners operating on U.S. 192 and U.S. 27 in not just Lake but also Polk, Orange and Osceola counties, about the success of her department’s efforts – including efforts to bring more economic development to the Lake County section of Four Corners.
That growth, she said, will also help boost job opportunities for residents in neighboring counties as well, including Northeast Polk.
The way it works, she said, is they reach out to local businesses and see what they need in order to grow.
“So far in the past five months, we’ve visited 250 of these businesses,” she said. “We’ve done roundtables and it’s worked. I know that roundtables are old-fashioned, but we’ve never done that in Lake County before.”
Business roundtables are where local business owners get together with county leaders to talk about ways to boost economic development opportunities, and to see what concerns and issues the business owners want addressed.
Beyond that, Smith said, the county is also providing tax incentives to companies that create jobs.
“We also have a job creation incentive,” she said. “If existing businesses have five employees or more, we give them an incentive for jobs created.”
The county also sponsors a technical assistance program, and, more importantly for Four Corners, has a new tourism promotion program.
Tourism is an important segment of the regional economy. Osceola and Orange counties host major theme parks and attractions like Walt Disney World and are home to a large number of hotels, timeshares and other resorts. Northeast Polk County is home to a fast growing number of vacation homes, or fully furnished houses rented on a short term basis to tourists. South Lake County has its own attractions, including Lake Louisa State Park near Clermont.
“We use our tourist development dollars to do new things,” Smith said. “We sponsor events that bring in heads in beds. We’ve been really proactive about these events.”
That program is paying off, she said, because the county has brought in an estimated 90,000 visitors to these events, filled 25,000 hotel rooms as a result, and generated a total economic investment of $35 million, she said.
“So far, it’s working out really well,” she said, adding that her department just hired two interns from the University of Central Florida to “figure out what we can use those tax dollars for, for the most return on our investment. The result of this is helping businesses grow. This really helps job creation. The analysis will tell us what we’re best suited for – is it sports events, or tourism events, or outdoor events.”
Mary Ellen Kerber, a member of the Four Corners Area Council, wanted to know where those tourists were staying, since Lake is one of the region’s largest counties in terms of land mass.
“Where are a lot of these tourists’ heads in beds going?” she asked.
For many, Smith said, it was right in Four Corners.
“That includes Summer Bay (Resort) in Four Corners, all the way up to Tavares,” she said. Summer Ray is a resort on U.S. 192, just across the Polk County line in South Lake County.
Gene Terrico, the chairman of the Four Corners Area Council, wanted to know what kind of companies qualify for those tax incentives.
“Is that for new businesses that come in and create jobs, or existing businesses?” he asked.
Both, Smith said, although she added that “There are not a lot of people who have taken advantage of this yet.”
Still, Terrico said it was a great idea for the county government to create enterprise zones like these, and then to reach out to the businesses there to assist them.
“Job retention or job growth, either way that’s pretty impressive,” Terrico said, adding that it was also a model for neighboring counties to emulate.
While Lake County is using enterprize zones to help boost job growth, the Haines City/Northeast Polk County Chamber of Commerce is putting a focus on the unique needs in Northeast Polk County, said Betsy Weddington Aycock, the Chamber’s executive director.
”We definitely have some unique needs,” Aycock said, while adding that Northeast Polk also has solid assets, including the growth of medical offices clustered around Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center in Haines City right up the U.S. 27 corridor to the Four Corners area, and the growth on that highway of vacation shows, which are fully furnished houses rented to tourists on a short term basis.
”Certainly with the influx of our winter snowbird visitors who come down here, that contributes to those health care offices, and to filling those vacation homes,” she said.
Aycock said the Chamber also hopes to put more of a focus on economic development needs in Four Corners.
”I know in the past, the Chamber presidents have tried to get a presence up in the Four Corners area, and it’s definitely on our radar screen,” she said.
Applications are available from Lake County’s Growth Management Department. Call 352-343-9647 for more information on the zone incentives.
Traditionally, Lake County had an economy based on agriculture and farming. In Tavares, the government has been a large employer, and in South Lake County, the region experienced a residential home construction boom in the past decade, followed by a series of new commercial shopping plazas that followed the new residents, adding some economic diversity to a county that had been a suburban bedroom community for Orlando for years.
Lake County has also been making a stronger push in recent years for increased tourism, promoting its lakes, outdoor activities, annual events like Bikefest in Leesburg, and resorts like the Mission Hill Inn at Howey in the Hills.