Citing the economic reality created by the ongoing pandemic, the executive director of the Central Florida Development Council told the Polk County Commission last week he had to slash his annual budget by nearly $200,000 — but also that the agency still plans on spending more than $1 million to expand the county's employment and business base.
Scott Malott told commissioners at the board's agenda review session a week ago that, despite the entrance of two major players in the job supply arena — the Florida Can operation in Winter Haven and the expansion of Peace River Citrus' Bartow operations — industry recruiting may be feeling the effects of the pandemic on local industrial growth in the 20/21 fiscal year.
Malott explained that there were unknown factors, like the worldwide slowdown of industry expansion, that could impact potential growth in the county's job market. Plus, he acknowledged the reluctance of investors to make any changes, pending the outcome of the pandemic and when it may pass.
Despite that, according to Malott, the county's marketing group is continuing to beat the drums to lure high-tech industry into the Central Florida Innovation District, an area surrounding the Florida Polytechnic University campus in north Polk, off of Interstate 4.
He explained that the landowner of a majority of the 4,500-acres of property that surrounds the brand-new state university wants to sell all his property to one developer, rather than do so piecemeal to individual buyers.
“We have had a lot of interest in that area and may have a developer on tap to buy it all and develop it, but it's early yet,” he said.
The county is one of the main contributors to the CFDC budget, but there are about 90 other businesses that kick in to fund the marketing organization, the director said.
Most of the money set aside for the organization, Malott explained, goes into its marketing budget, with only about 11 percent tagged for administrative costs and staffing.
He also said that last year's efforts resulted in 1,650 new jobs in the county and brick-and-mortar investments totaling about $365 million.
Malott told the county board that the agency's goals for the coming year were to “expand the local ecosystem for high-skill and high-wage employment; to continue to pursue the formalization of the innovation district and support and advance critical transportation infrastructure improvements.
He said that support of the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, which would link Polk to Collier County through the south-central part of the state, along with expansion of the Polk Parkway to connect with State Road 60 and U.S. Highway 17, could be key factors in improving Polk's ability to draw new manufacturing interests to the county.
County Commissioner Rick Wilson and Polk State College President Angela Falconetti both sit on the advisory committee that is steering the Southwest-Central Florida Connector through the preliminary development stages.
The upcoming extension of ad valorem tax incentives referendum could also be a critical factor in future growth. Malott said that currently there were 14 existing Polk businesses that claimed the exemption for expansion and another 11 that were new to the county, resulting in more than 4,000 new jobs with an average wage of about $58,000.
Even with the exemptions, those companies still paid more than $5 million in property taxes.
Commission Chairman Bill Braswell asked if other neighboring counties were luring more industry than Polk, to which Malott said Polk was holding its own in the marketplace.
The board was not required to take action, even though it contributes to the CFDC's budget. That dollar figure was not immediately available.
At the subsequent formal session on August 18, the county commission okayed spending about $9 million to upgrade its computer system and heard detailed explanations about why the county should increase the height of its garbage stacks at the North Central Landfill.
The landfill issue was discussed at the public hearing segment of the board's session and drew no public comment. Experts explained that by increasing the allowable height of trash stacks, the county could satisfy most of its disposal needs for the next century and beyond.
Solid Waste Department Director Ana Wood told the board it was much cheaper and easier to increase the height of the trash stacks than it was to obtain new permits and develop additional disposal sites. The present height limit is about 135 feet and the change would double that height, or bring it up to 380 feet.
“We're just going to go higher, not get bigger,” she said.
The landfill is located just north of the Polk Parkway and Winter Lake Road. The nearest residence, according to Wood, is more than a mile from the dump and would not be impacted.
Commissioner George Lindsey questioned whether taller garbage piles would be a welcoming sight for Polk Parkway users, but Wood assured him that long-term plans include ways to disguise the stacks through landscaping.
Lindsey cast the only negative vote on the measure.