2 min read February 2021 — Polk County has more than one ace up its sleeve when it comes to economic recovery and future-proofing its local businesses. Sean Malott, CEO of the Central Florida Development Council spoke with Invest: about the Central Florida Innovation District that is shaping up to be a business magnet and the emerging opportunity areas for the local business community.
What were your biggest takeaways from 2020?
As an area, we had a really good year economically in terms of capital investment and projects coming into the area. We’ve seen major projects investing in the local market despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. We would definitely have had a better year if the virus was not part of the framework here but people continue to want to be in our market. Companies want to be here. 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. 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 on businesses. In essence, the community values business freedom, economic freedom and economic prosperity and enabling a person and a business to make the decision that is best for them.
What opportunities emerged from the pandemic that you are looking to take advantage of?
One opportunity for improvement is our local manufacturing hub, which we would like to see more of. Several manufacturers were forced to tackle challenges within their supply chain. Some of the products and materials they need come from other markets that became inaccessible overnight. Thinking about where the supply chain is located, where you get your products from, we were working on messaging that made businesses think about the proportion of the inputs they can get locally and those they have to get from abroad. Our messaging centered on preparing the supply chain of the future, and we believe that means more manufacturing coming to the United States. Some of it will come to Florida, much of it to other locations. Knowing that certain industries have done really well in this time and to have some of those within your community is important. It recognizes that having headquarters and major operations locally is definitely a benefit. We would like to see more of that across the board and throughout the state.
What role did your organization play in supporting and strengthening local businesses?
We’re a private, not-for-profit organization partnered with the county to work as its economic development arm. We worked with the county to distribute new CARES Act funds to over 5,600 businesses within the community, anything from a couple thousand dollars up to $10,000 depending on the size of the business. We made an effort to open the funding to the benefit of all business sizes. Approximately $19 million was shared with these companies. We usually are highly focused on the new businesses coming into the community but the pandemic granted us an opportunity to refocus on existing businesses within the community, making sure our policies and things that we are doing are supportive of existing business within the community.
What unique business opportunities does Polk County offer companies looking to relocate or open new offices?
Right before COVID, we were working on a new initiative called the Central Florida Innovation District. It’s an area that encompasses Florida Polytechnic University, right along Interstate 4. The Department of Transportation is building SunTrax, an autonomous vehicles research and testing facility down the street from Florida Polytechnic University. We designated this area as the Innovation District, tying these two large anchor institutions and attracting major state investments to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to increase awareness about new developments. Since we started that initiative and marketed that effort, we’ve had several developers come into the market that are in due diligence and looking to take out large tracts of land in that area. It offers definite possibilities as transportation infrastructure comes into play.
What are Polk County’s primary challenges related to business growth and development?
Our school district is a high priority to continue providing quality education. We have a real interest in seeing our universities be successful in the market. Education is challenged as a platform at the moment but our local universities are all major employers. They’re struggling with how to provide quality to their students. We want to see them make it through. That’s a challenge and we want to be able to assist and help our higher education institutions as well as our K-12 partners. Although education is feeling some stress, it is 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.
For more information, visit: