PLANT CITY — Local business leaders hope a newly formed economic development corporation will reinvigorate a region anxious for an infusion of new businesses and the cash that comes with them.
With some 3,000 acres of land poised for commercial and industrial development and another swath in Mid Town Plant City awaiting a mixed-use developer, city and community leaders turned to growth as a way to ignite the economy.
Things have been pretty quiet in Plant City since the Great Recession. There has been no major residential construction in nearly a decade, property values plummeted, as they did throughout the state, and city coffers thinned as a result. Infrastructure suffered in a big way.
Property values are still not back to the 2007 level when the nation’s economy took a nose dive. “We are ticking upward, but slowly, regarding taxable values in our city,” said Mike Herr, city manager for Plant City.
Finding the money to make the needed infrastructure improvements and expansions would require taking one of two paths — increasing property taxes, an unpopular notion in these parts, or increasing economic development, which brings with it mobility fees to pay for infrastructure improvements in the areas being developed. Those areas include Park and County Line Roads, the north and south frontage roads along Interstate 4 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Local business leaders chose economic development. Plant City helped with $175,000 in seed money to start the new Plant City Economic Development Corp.
“We had a new city manager come to town, Mike Herr,” said Randy Larson, chairman of the new EDC. “The right guy for the right time for Plant City. There are certain times in a community’s life when leadership matches exactly with the needs. This marriage could not have been more perfect. Mike comes from an incredibly strong economic development background in Polk County, not to mention his great leadership and administrative skills.”
Herr has spearheaded several initiatives to grow jobs, acquire new capital investment and expand tax bases, he said. “Every successful economic development project must have a strong private sector partner to take a risk and local government must be an investor in infrastructure whether it be roads or utilities.”
That economic background and a pro-growth city commission “has catapulted Plant City’s economic development efforts,” Larson said.
The first steps local leadership took were to renew efforts to work with the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. on growing jobs and businesses in the region, Larson said. “We leaned on the EDC for support.” The agency, funded with county and city money and private investment, sent Jacob “Jake” Austin to Plant City to become its point person in the eastern Hillsborough arena. That arena includes the busy I-4 Corridor, an area attracting numerous industrial and logistical businesses due to its easy statewide access.
“That introduction to a formalized economic development structure was the impetus for Plant City Right. Now.,” Larson said. It’s an economic development campaign touting the area’s easy-access transportation routes, schools, work ethic and other amenities. A forum in May to kick off the campaign drew more than 200. “We expected 40 or 50 people,” Larson said. “Beyond any expectation.”
Already, there was interest in the I-4 Corridor. And already, there was organic growth with existing businesses like Highland Packaging Solutions and James Hardie Industries undergoing major expansions, said Austin, who begins his job as president and CEO of the new development group next month.
“To make key development sites competitive, we needed to invest in infrastructure,” Austin said. The city got started expanding water and sewer to areas like County Line Road, a corridor with plenty of land poised for industrial development.
At the same time, Tampa Electric Company began building a new substation on County Line Road.
“Every obstacle to economic development, Mike Herr tackled it,” Austin said.
Mayor Rick Lott and Herr called a summit in June and gathered significant business owners from the region to gauge interest in forming an independent EDC.
“What we discovered is an untapped business community for supporting economic development,” Larson said. “It was a green field of untapped resources. Out of that summit there was such great interest that an exploratory committee of 20 was formed at the end of June.”
With a goal to raise $250,000 to get started, the group cobbled together nearly $400,000.
Unlike the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, which is heavily funded by Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa, the new Plant City group wants its city to pay only $5,000 annually, like any other partner. Eventually, Larson said. It gives the group more autonomy, he said.
Forming the Plant City EDC wasn’t about competing with the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, Larson said. “We see this as a way to make the partnership even stronger.” He said it was about putting more focus on this segment of eastern Hillsborough County.
Of the commercial properties that are shovel-ready, the largest is Lakeside Station, Austin said, which is poised to develop logistical centers, warehousing and big box warehouses on Park Road. There are also dozens of acres along the frontage roads north and south of Interstate 4 primed for development and along County Line Road, he said.
The board will officially meet for the first time Monday with 32 full board members and 12 general members.