A lot of Lake County remains wide open and rural, so creating a single effective economic development strategy for the county isn't easy. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).
TAVARES – It may not have the same population base as neighboring counties like Orange and Polk, but at least geographically, Lake County is huge, with communities spread out across a land mass about the size of Rhode Island.
“It’s a good-sized county,” said Scott Blankenship.
That makes economic development and promoting job growth a challenge. What links the farms in rural areas with the tourism in Mount Dora, and the municipal offices in Tavares, with the retail growth in South Lake County around Four Corners?
Not much, which makes it difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all economic development strategy for the entire county.
The newly formed Lake County Office of Economic Development & Tourism has a new plan to implement a regional approach to economic development. The office has just created a three-member team of economic development and tourism coordinators who will be responsible for covering three micro-regions within the county. By breaking up the county into separate regions, the coordinators will work more closely with local businesses and municipalities in their assigned area.
Blankenship said the three regions are going to be the Northeast  – Mount Dora, Tavares, Eustis, Howey In The Hills, and Umatilla; the Northwest – Leesburg, Lady Lake, Fruitland Park; and the South –  Clermont, Groveland, Mascotte, and Montverde.
Breaking them up is a recognition that each region has its own separate economic base, Blankenship said, which makes it easier to address their specific economic development needs.
“Even though they’re similar in a lot of ways as far as the top industries — retail and health care dominate in all three regions, along with, until a few years ago, construction – there are differences, too,” Blankenship said. “In the Leesburg area, they have a vision for an aerospace technology park on several hundred acres off the turnpike. On the northeast side, you’ve got the (State Road) 429-Wekiva Parkway expansion coming through there, which creates some opportunities for Mount Dora. In the south you have land that’s contiguous to Orange County that’s attractive for future development.”
The bottom line: the new economic development team can cover each region, and develop a more specific strategy for promoting growth there.
“I think the county gets that being a one trick pony doesn’t work,” Blankenship said. “It’s kind of like a time and territory strategy. This way, they will have a chance at building better and stronger relationships all around.  The strategy that works is to get to know your business community better, because basically you have territory to cover. Up until now,  the county has had one business resource center at the college in Leesburg, which is out of reach for a lot of businesses outside that area.  We’re hoping to get closer to those businesses.”
Blankenship said this “centralized approach” will dedicate an expert in each region, providing a “more hands-on approach to supporting our local businesses, but also better coordination with our municipalities, which creates synergy to economic development initiatives throughout the region.” 
The team will consist of Adam Sumner, who came to Lake County from the City of Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, where he worked as a senior economic development officer, and who will be targeting the northwest region; Robert Chandler, previously of the Orlando firm Fishkind & Associates, who will take on the northeast region; and Cecelia Smith, who previously worked with the City of Tavares’ Economic Development Agency, who will cover the south.
“I haven’t heard of this strategy before,” Blankenship said. “We’re not doing this because no one else has, we’re doing it because we think it will work. The business community likes it. They are looking forward to having their own economic development coordinator they can go to, and their own brick and mortar place they can go to.”
It was only within the last few months that Blankenship’s office got created.
“Lake County Economic Development used to be a separate office from Lake County Tourism,” said Kelly Lafollette, public information officer for the county. “Recently the two offices were merged into one. It was a strategic approach, because economic development and tourism go hand in hand in promoting Lake County.”
Blankenship was hired to run the new office, she added.
“Once Scott came on board, be brought forth some creative ideas for promoting economic development in Lake County, including starting these micro regions,” LaFollette said.
Blankenship said he did that because the county is simply too large for one centralized job growth strategy.
“One of the main reasons is I tell people is we’re geographically challenged,” he said. “It’s 100 miles from north to south. It’s a tough county, with Lake Apopka in the middle, to get around in. In the past, we’ve had a centralized economic development operation and they would spider out to different parts of the county.”
He noted that South Lake County experienced some of the biggest changes in the past decade, to the point where Clermont has now surpassed Tavares as Lake’s largest city. Through the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of residential growth in South Lake County off U.S. 27 in the Four Corners area, right up to the Polk County line. It eventually got followed by a steady flow of new commercial growth, particularly in medical and retail offices.
“I really, really understand South Lake County because I was really involved down there,” Blankenship said. “Five or six years ago, this boom was happening, although it wasn’t just happening in South Lake County. But 15 years ago there were very few new subdivisions in South Lake County. It turned into a residential boom, if you will, with all the residential development. There’s more development there because of vacant or available land. Down there, it’s largely a residential area. It has a lot of Disney and attraction workers, as well as big timeshares for overseas folks.”
For more information about the Office of Economic Development & Tourism, call 352-742-3918 or visit http://egr.lakecountyfl.gov.

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