2 min read February 2021 — In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Polk County’s economy has gone beyond preservation to experience exponential growth. Within the residential and commercial real estate and construction industries, Polk is on a roll. This is especially true for the Winter Haven/Lakeland region.
In fact, Polk County is No. 1 in net migration to Florida. The county has grown 20% in the last decade, from roughly 600,000 residents in the 2010 U.S. Census to about 725,000 in July 2019, the latest data available.
Invest: Tampa Bay spoke with Sean Malott, CEO of the Central Florida Development Council, about this growing phenomenon and why 2020 was such a good economic year for Polk County.
“Our county has led the state in net immigration over the last year just because companies and people are looking to make a change and our geographic location and access to other metropolitan areas have granted us an edge,” said Malott. “Our county and local commissions do not put any additional burden on business outside of what is mandated from the state. When it came to the lockdown, our communities did not necessarily impose any additional restrictions upon businesses.”
Winter Haven particularly has flourished. Over the past 25 years, the area has been revitalized and the efforts are clearly bearing fruit.
“In the year 2000, had you come to Downtown Winter Haven, it was a ghost town,” Katie Worthington, president and CEO of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, told The Ledger. “The Downtown Winter Haven of 2021 looks nothing like it did 21 years ago.”
According to The Ledger, quoting Main Street Winter Haven President and CEO Anita Strang, the Downtown area will soon see four businesses opening up, compared to one closure during the pandemic.
The past five years for Winter Haven have marked a distinct transformation for the area, with only further growth on the horizon. Winter Haven’s Downtown boasts an influx of new businesses and intends to be a walkable community hub for residents, Strang said.
“The difference in now and five years ago is there was a lot of jobs downtown five years ago, but it was kind of come downtown, work your day, maybe hit up happy hour and that was about it,” Worthington said. “There are a lot more experiences being created in the Downtown from a quality-of-life perspective.”
Lakeland has experienced prosperity with Winter Haven in addition to their growing populations. This year, the Lakeland Winter Haven MSA had the third-fastest annual job growth rate within the state for mining, logging, and construction.
This growth does not come without challenges for the community though, as Malott contests. As the community grows, providing quality education to the expanding population is vital.
“Education is challenged as a platform at the moment but our local universities are all major employers,” said Malott. “They’re struggling with how to provide quality to their students. We want to see them make it through.”
However, with the continued rollout of vaccines, optimism has prevailed for the county and actions have been taken to both continue economic growth and bolster the education system.
“Although education is feeling some stress, it’s another opportunity for learning, for our state, our country as a lesson in providing quality education in a significant manner and a robust way so that if anything like the pandemic happens in the future, it’s not going to slow us down as much as it has in the past year,” said Malott.
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Photo Credit: Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing (a.k.a. Visit Central Florida or Central Florida Sports Marketing)