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Plant a seed

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 11:00 a.m. February 24, 2017
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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Executive Summary
Community. Plant City Issue. The city has cultivated a pro-business message. Key. Multiple entities have worked together to reshape the city's brand.

Plant City business and civic leaders faced a stark reality three years ago: Lakeland, the city's neighbor down Interstate 4, had hammered the east Hillsborough County city in economic development.

Several giant warehouses and distribution centers, projects worth millions of dollars, were announced in Lakeland from 2011 to 2014, including an Amazon fulfillment center and an O'Reilly Auto Parts facility. Even worse, the Polk County city won the hundreds of jobs and fortified tax base that came with those projects.

Jake Austin, a 2004 Lakeland High School graduate who worked for the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. during that time, believed the problems in Plant City were fixable. The issues included some indifferent city government officials; lack of infrastructure, from sewage and water to electricity; and no single entity that exclusively and consistently championed Plant City.

The issues revealed a grounding reality. Says Austin: “When we were losing projects to Lakeland, or anyone else in Florida, it all came back to one problem — we didn't have the sites.”

Austin, in concert with several other key Plant City leaders, up through Mayor Rick Lott and City Manager Mike Herr, has led a quick and notable turnaround in the past 18 months. The city has won several projects, and Austin, named president of the new Plant City Economic Development Corp. in November 2015, is getting meetings with targeted companies once thought unthinkable.

“We are gaining national attention,” Austin says. “Lakeland has been very good for a very long time. But Lakeland is running out of room. The natural progression will be to come to Plant City.”

Known nationally for its annual strawberry festival, Plant City has invested nearly $5 million in a series of utility and infrastructure projects. Now, boasts Austin, the city has the sites.

“Part of our mission is to be the best place to do business in Central Florida,” says Herr. “We're very motivated. We're very ambitious. Our business community is ready to rock and roll.”

An open-for-business vibe has been absent for a while in Plant City, says local entrepreneur Lizzette Sarria. She owns an a forensic accounting and CFO services firm, On-Site Accounting, and her family, which has been in Plant City since the 1960s, owns a Dairy Queen in town.

“The level of proactively working on this is a huge shift in our culture,” Sarria says. “I've never seen it like this before. It's really amazing.”

New mindset
An early sign Plant City 2.0 was going to be successful came from Aaron Davis, owner of Hillsborough Title, one of the largest title companies in Florida. A Plant City native whose mom, Gail Calhoun, founded the firm in 1984, Davis had been considering moving the company headquarters to Tampa.

But after conversations with Austin and other city officials, Davis decided to keep Hillsborough Title in Plant City. The company plans to invest at least $5 million into a new 12,000-square-foot building on South Alexander Street, a project that will bring 50 jobs to the area and about 100 in the next five to 10 years. The company didn't receive any performance-based incentives or subsidies to stay in Plant City, notable considering it might have moved to another location.

Herr says the key to getting companies like Hillsborough Title to stay goes back to the city's commitment to supporting businesses. Plant City Mayor Rick Lott is an entrepreneur himself, having owned and run several businesses, including a managed IT services firm and an insurance agency.

Lott's experience meshes well with Herr, who was most recently head of public works and utilities for the city of Tampa under Mayor Bob Buckhorn for three years. And Herr was the Polk County administrator for seven years prior to Tampa. In Polk, working in Lakeland, Herr helped implement one-stop permitting and a streamlined development review process for the county.

Herr has brought that mindset to Plant City, where he was named city manager in September 2014. He led a shift internally, demanding a business-like sense of urgency for all departments. One goal: to review site plans within 10 days and building plans within 12 days — significantly faster than before.

Externally, Herr has overseen several infrastructure projects. One extended water and sewer services to County Line Road, which cost $2 million and was completed in January 2016. Another extended water and sewer services to portions of Park Road, a $2.6 million project completed late last year.

Those projects led to Plant City winning new business. West Palm Beach-based McCraney Property Co. and Lakeland-based Central Florida Development, for example, are building three new business parks on County Line Road. The projects will bring more than 2.5 million square feet of speculative commercial space to the market, says Austin.

Another big get was QGS Development Inc. The firm, which does site development, golf course development and has a turf division, is building a 16,000-square-foot headquarters facility along Park Road at Lakeside Station Logistics Park. That project, says Austin, could bring up to 300 jobs to Plant City.

Big potential
Herr and Austin, in revitalizing Plant City, aren't alone.

The Plant City business community mobilized soon after Herr was named city manager. It started with the Plant City EDC, founded in June 2015. Entrepreneur Yvonne Fry, who owns Plant City branding company Fryed Egg Productions, says while the Tampa Hillsborough EDC is great, Plant City is one of many of its jurisdictions. Says Fry: “There were elements (of economic development) we needed to take responsibility for.”

The organization now has about 60 investors. A staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force for six years after high school and before college, Austin is the first president and CEO of the Plant City EDC. Austin, 30, came with the right experience. From November 2012 to August 2014, he was the liaison between the Tampa Hillsborough EDC and Plant City.

Late last year, the EDC released “Plant City Reimagined: The Gateway Enterprise.” It's a flipbook that shows the potential for existing redevelopments across Plant City. Vacant lots and retail spaces are highlighted to show existing and future uses. The vision includes an urgent care center to Historic Downtown Plant City, and buildings zoned for light manufacturing transformed into restaurants and office spaces. 

The book also features the shuttered U.S. Post Office at 301 W. Reynolds St., directly behind City Hall. Plant City officials say the building would make a great location for a trendy bar and restaurant. Fry says EDC officials have spoken with prominent Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart about the post office property.

Another early backer of the EDC, area developer and homebuilder Bob Appleyard is also building a project in Plant City, the 1,400-acre Lakeside Station Logistics Park. Appleyard, with more than 30 years developing sites and projects in the region, says he's amazed at the high level of cooperation — and lack of turf wars — among multiple Plant City entities. That's a big reason why Appleyard believes the Plant City revitalization has staying power.

“We have a compelling opportunity here that's been neglected,” Appleyard says. “I've never seen anything like this.”

(The Plant City Observer contributed to this story.)

More winning
Some examples of companies that have announced moves or relocations to Plant City recently include:

McCraney Property Co. and Lakeland-based Central Florida Development are building three speculative business parks with more than 2.5 million square feet of commercial space on County Line Road.

QGS Development, a site and golf course development firm, is building a 16,000-square-foot headquarters facility along Park Road at Lakeside Station Logistics Park. The company has been based in Lithia, and its relocation could bring up to 300 jobs to Plant City.

AKCA Inc., a Plant City pavement marking systems company that works with government agencies and contractors throughout the Southeast, is building a new 6,000-square-foot office and adding up to 30 employees.

Highland Packaging Solutions is constructing a new rail switch and spur line. The project, say to Plant City Economic Development Corp. officials, will enable the company to add at least 20 new jobs and invest $6.5 million in new manufacturing machinery and equipment.

James Hardie Building Products has nearly completed a $100 million expansion and now has 350 employees;

Toufayan Bakeries of Plant City, partially behind an ad valorem tax exemption, is building an $8.9 million expansion at its Plant City facilities. It expects to add at least 80 jobs with the expansion.


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