WINTER HAVEN – While touring the site of a proposed mixed use development on Mills Avenue in Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer noted that the project known as Mills Park will include retail shops and office space, as well as new apartments for local residents.
The development’s close proximity to the nearby Florida Hospital on Princeton Avenue is also significant, the mayor noted, because Mills Park and the hospital are virtually within walking distance of one another.
“You’re not very far from the SunRail stop at the hospital,” Dyer noted.
As city leaders celebrate each new development like Mills Park that holds a groundbreaking ceremony, and the expected economic boost it will bring to the local economy and job growth, a reference is often made to transportation being a key factor in helping to spur that growth — by providing local residents, commuters and businesses with advanced transportation options at a time when the interstates are becoming more congested.
SunRail, the 61-mile light rail system that is now under construction and will cross Orange, Osceola, Volusia and Seminole counties — with four stops in downtown Orlando — is often cited as the most significant transportation advancement, and a project likely to revitalize the regional economy.
For Gov. Rick Scott, eagerly on the hunt for new job growth across Florida as the state continues to post an 8.8 percent unemployment rate, his decision in 2011 to approve state financing for SunRail could aid those efforts. That was demonstrated last week, when the governor joined local and statewide officials at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the construction of the Winter Haven Intermodal Rail Terminal – a project that owes much of its existence to the approval of SunRail.
The Winter Haven Rail Terminal will be constructed and operated by Evansville Western Railway, an affiliate of the Jacksonville-based CSX Transportation – which sold to the state the tracks being used for SunRail. That deal allowed CSX to move ahead on a state-of-the-art terminal to serve CSX’s growing intermodal business and expand service to customers in Orlando, Tampa and South Florida.
The construction work alone will create 200 jobs, while EVWR and its contractors have partnered with the local workforce development board, Polk Works, to find qualified suppliers and subcontractors to assist on this project.
“My number one priority is to create jobs for Florida families,” Scott noted at the ceremony. “This groundbreaking means more jobs, more opportunities for our communities – and underscores Florida’s importance in global commerce.”
The terminal is being built on 318 acres and will include five 3,000-foot loading tracks and two 10,000-foot arrival and departure tracks that will be spanned by electric rail-mounted Gantry cranes that will unload and load trains.
The use of electric cranes, rather than diesel-powered ones, is expected to help reduce noise and emissions.
As the governor’s office noted in a release on the ceremony, “The 318-acre terminal is adjacent to 930 acres that CSX has an option to purchase from the city of Winter Haven. The intermodal terminal will serve as a magnet for the development of distribution centers, warehousing and manufacturing facilities on the adjacent property.”
The governor’s office also cited an economic impact study by HDR Engineering, which predicted that this project would create up to 8,500 jobs and generate more than $10 billion in economic development over the next decade.
“Winter Haven is on track for great success with the start of this exciting economic engine,” said the city’s mayor, J.P. Powell. “This project represents another step towards reshaping our economy, building critically needed infrastructure, and providing meaningful jobs for our residents and our community.”
The Winter Haven Rail Terminal is expected to be operational by May 2014. When it does, the benefits will extend well beyond the city limits, predicted Keith Laytham, president of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change.
Poinciana is a large community, with 84,000 residents in 10 villages cutting across Osceola and Polk counties, and it was very hard hit by the recession and collapse of the housing market. Laytham, who lives on the Polk County side in the Solivita development, said this project could offer much-needed job opportunities for Poinciana residents as well.
“Winter Haven is not that far away from people in the southern end of Poiciana,” Laytham said. “For people who live in Village 7 or Village 3, it’s a half hour drive, much closer than Orlando is and a lot less stressful to get to.”
The CSX project, he predicted, means plentiful jobs just a half hour away.
“The good thing is it will create additional jobs, both construction jobs and permanent jobs,” Laytham said. “It’s fantastic news from a jobs standpoint.”
And much of it is owed to SunRail, he added.
“What CSX had said was if they could close on the SunRail deal, that would give them the money to build that logistics yard in Winter Haven,” Laytham said. “From a Polk County standpoint, that got this CSX project right into the middle of SunRail. This is great for the city of Winter Haven. It brings that whole freight transfer ability to Winter Haven and all those new jobs.”
Poinciana will also host the final stop on SunRail, at the intersection of Poinciana Boulevard and Orange Blossom Trail, right across the street from the Gatorade plant. The project is expected to not only bring hundreds of construction jobs to Poinciana, but also help spur more economic development around the station.
It will also make it easier, and faster, for residents to get into Orlando without fighting traffic on Interstate 4.
SunRail is expected to begin initial operations in 2014. Under the agreement, CSX retains an exclusive freight easement to operate on the SunRail line in order to continue to provide common carrier services to its existing customers.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.