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Lake Wales
Monday, July 22, 2024

Taking Care of Business


By Jack Hilligoss

Mayor of Lake Wales Florida

*Editors note: We appreciate Lake Wales Mayor Jack Hilligoss taking us up on the offer to speak directly to the people.

This is the second of a 4 part series of articles. If you missed the first one you can find it here:

I. Racehorses & Mules


    “Thank you”, again to Carl and the Daily Ridge team for giving me this opportunity to address concerns of Lake Wales citizens.  In my first article, I tried to give as much information as I could in the appropriate space for the Daily Ridge on the issue of growth and development in the city. I will return to those issues briefly at the end of this article but, for now, here are some other areas I received several questions about.

Economic Development

    Questions and concerns about economic development in our town usually cluster around employment and consumer opportunities. At the base of all these questions however is the issue of raising income levels for people who live in our city. 

Creating Jobs

    In the first article, I mentioned one reason for the housingboom in our area is the decline of the citrus industry. The last two decades have been harsh on grove owners. A steep decline in the Citrus Industry coincided with rapid population growth of the post-Covid years. Those concurrent realities have led to many, multi-generational, citrus growers selling large tracts of land to developers. This is done for various reasons; however, I have had several conversations with landowners who use a substantial amount of the proceeds from these sales in attemptsto revitalize and sustain the viable groves which remain. Still, the crop that was the economic heart and soul of this county for generations has declined.

    When Hunt Brothers closed its operations, it cost Lake Wales 125 jobs. Conservative estimates from citrus industry leadershave Lake Wales losing 500 jobs and $30 million annually in local income due to this decline. Added to this is the persistent reality that median income for Lake Wales residents still lags national, state, and even other Polk County cities. We must find ways to diversify our economy by attracting businesses which pay residents well. 

    The City of Lake Wales is attempting to do that first by working cooperatively with our Economic Development Council. In 2022, the EDC hired Skip Alford as their CEO. A major part of Mr. Alford’s job is to scout and recruit businesses/employers who are looking to expand or relocate, to come to Lake Wales. The city underwrites a significant portion of the operating expenses for the EDC to do this. The city also earned a grant this year and, along with the EDC, hired the Central Florida Regional Planning Council to develop a long-term plan to recruit large scale employers from qualified target industries (https://www.cfdc.org) to Lake Wales. We alsoadopted incentive packages for businesses who will make at least a $3 million dollar capital investment in Lake Wales, employ at least 10  people, pay an annual wage 115% the current average in Polk County or better, and provide employee benefit packages that include health insurance. Our EDC director has also expressed a desire to see more of our available land zoned to be used for these types of industry. 

     In 2023, Advanced Drainage Systems, one of the nation’s leading providers of innovative water management solutions, announced it would build a new, state-of-the-art pipe manufacturing facility in Lake Wales. They broke ground on the 100-acre site this spring. When the facility is built out and operational, it will provide over 200, close-to-home jobs for Lake Wales residents with starting salaries well above median levels and full benefits packages. This company has a tremendous record of environmental responsibility and is already proving to be a wonderful partner to our city. (https://www.adspipe.com/lake-wales)

Creating Opportunities

   The second set of questions around economic development usually center on dining, entertainment, and shopping opportunities for citizens. Again, in 2023, Lake Wales took the step of partnering with a Retail Strategies to locate and recruit these types of businesses. The immediate fruit of that partnership has been some new restaurants-like Freddy’s and Slim Chickens which both opened on Hwy. 27 this year. We also have a new Dunkin Donuts opening on Hwy. 60 this year and will soon see a Panera Bread on Hwy. 27. We continue to work with Retail Strategies and have had conversations with a few other, nationally known, restaurant chains which are real possibilities for the near future.

Supporting Small, Local, Business

    Lake Wales is home to many, local, entrepreneurs who have deep roots and have made personal investment in our city. We want to do our best to create an environment that aides in their success.

    We pursue this objective primarily through three agencies: Lake Wales Main Street, Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce, and The Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency. The city gives financial support to Main Street and the Chamber. These organizations work to support and promote local businesses-in the case of Main Street, focusing on businesses located downtown-in various ways. They offer help in marketing, some coaching and networking opportunities, and conduct events/campaigns designed to bring attention and customers to these local businesses.

    The City Commission of Lake Wales serves as the governing board of the CRA as well and over the last few years the CRA has made significant investments in the historic downtown and northwest neighborhoods of our city.  In 2021, we adopted “Lake Wales Connected” a multi-million-dollar renovation plan. In 2022 we secured the financing and launched the renovation. Any project like this will be difficult and unsettling for a time, but the results are going to be stunning! We are hoping to complete the work on Park Avenue and Market Street Plaza in the fall of 2024. This year, you will also see huge investments in new sidewalks and treescapes between Florida Ave. and J.A. Wiltshire.

    Along with this, the CRA has made investments into several, local, businesses with grants given to restaurant and shop owners to renovate buildings for commercial use in both the downtown and Northwest neighborhoods. To date the CRA has invested in the start-up of 8 local restaurants. We also invested in the launch of Biz Linc, a small business incubator on Lincoln Ave., in 2023.  This incubator is currently helping over 20 small business owners with office-space and small business coaching from their location. I intend to write more about this investment in one of the two future articles. 

    Lake Wales Main Street has worked in conjunction with other organizations to conduct a wonderful series of events, concerts, markets designed to bring people downtown to the local businesses. 

    Finally, the CRA is looking into other ways we can express gratitude and provide help to those businesses downtown who have weathered this difficult, but exciting, time of transition.

An Invitation

   I’ve received a good amount of response to my first article for the Daily Ridge through personal interaction, emails, texts, and of course comments on social media. So, I want to finish this article with a few, quick, bullet points and an invitation.

• The numbers on development I shared with you in my first article are the accurate numbers for current development in our city. They come straight from our planning department.

• My intent wasn’t to deny the reality of growth that is coming but to counter inaccurate statements about the rate of population growth in Lake Wales.

• I felt like it would be helpful for citizens to understand the process a city and a developer goes through for building to take place because there is so much misinformation around that topic and knowing this process might lead to more thoughtful suggestions.

• I am not trying to deny the responsibility of any local municipality but only hoping that people in Lake Wales will understand the limits of what the City Commission can control-that is what happens inside our city limits only.Much of what we are experiencing in Lake Wales is the result of growth we have no control over. And that is true of every municipality in Polk County.

• I think most people who live here struggle with the rapid growth of Polk County and how it has changed our way of life. However, knowing how to manage that growth in a realistic way that doesn’t violate property rights, or the law is a challenge. Municipalities who are overly punitive in attempts to mitigate growth can land in legal trouble quickly and, no matter what any municipality does, every landowner in Florida has an underlying right to sell and develop their property according to uses already approved in Land Use Plans.

    But I will end with the invitation. I am sincere when I write that I would listen to any realistic, creative, and legal ideas you may have.  I will also do my best to answer any questions or find answers to any of your questions. Email me at [email protected]

Or call the city office and ask for an appointment and I will set a time to hear your thoughts and concerns.  

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