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Heartland: Great Benefits, Room to Grow


When Bill Tamayo and his partners in American Concrete Tile Inc. looked for a site for their new roof tile manufacturing plant, he says, "We needed excellent transportation to Sarasota, Fort Myers and markets throughout Florida." The businessmen focused their search on Florida's Heartland-- 5,000 square miles covering six South Central Florida counties.

In DeSoto County they discovered a splendid business environment and very helpful government officials. "We've had great cooperation from the county," says Tamayo. He aims to tap into some of many special tax and workforce advantages offered region-wide, such as the state Enterprise Zone tax incentives available in each Heartland county.

DeSoto's excellent transportation system includes U.S. Highway 17 and State Roads 70 and 72; Interstate 75 is a short drive away. Three international airports and two seaports are nearby, too, and DeSoto is served by two rail systems.

In short, DeSoto has everything American Concrete Tile needs. DeSoto County commissioners approved plans for a 41,000-square-foot plant on 19 acres, and the new facility will have about 35 employees when it opens in 2007.

Facts & Figures
Population 249,837
Labor Force 99,619
Households 87,700
AVG Household EBI $38, 653
Consumer Spending $3.31 bil.
Total Retail Sales $2.30 bil.

- South Florida Community College ______________________________

- LaBelle Municipa
- Airport
- Okeechobee County Airport
- Sebring Regional Airport ______________________________

Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Demographics USA 2005, TradeDimensions International Inc.; Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. EBI = effective buying/disposable income

The new business has good company: A 700-employee, $40 million Wal-Mart Distribution Center recently opened in DeSoto. Infrastructure for that project came from Florida's Rural Infrastructure and Economic Development Transportation Funds. "Wal-Mart is very fortunate to have such a great working relationship and support both at the local and state level in Florida," says Larry Mahoney, regional vice-president/logistics for the retail giant.

Also new are a Holiday Inn Express, with 63 rooms and space for 20 more, and a Chili's Grill & Bar. DeSoto Memorial Hospital is undergoing major expansion after receiving a $20 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture--the largest Community Facilities Direct Loan in USDA Rural Development history.


Best of all worlds

The Heartland is a tranquil rural region where enterprise is always welcome and bigcity resources are nearby. More than 85% of Florida's population lives within 150 miles of the Heartland, making this a potential market of 12 million people.

Higher education options are widely available. More than 25,000 people annually take part in programs and services through 40-year-old South Florida Community College in DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands counties. Based in Avon Park in Highlands, SFCC has satellite centers in Wauchula, Lake Placid and Arcadia and offers continuing workforce education courses at several other locations.

Also, Indian River Community College, Edison College and Palm Beach Community College have Heartland satellite campuses. Florida Gulf Coast University, the state's newest fouryear university, is in nearby Fort Myers. Vocational-technical schools and private institutions round out educational offerings.

A key facility is Sebring Regional Airport in Highlands, the largest Heartland county with a population of approximately 95,000. Sebring Regional has an economic impact of well over $200 million annually and a payroll of $12 million, says Mike Willingham, executive director of the Sebring Airport Authority. The airport was named in the State Aviation System Plan as the growth airport for south central Florida.

Sebring has Florida's first airportcentered Community Redevelopment Agency; the CRA can provide financing assistance and other incentives to businesses leasing land and building facilities on airport property and at its commerce park. The entire airport is a foreign trade zone, and Sebring Regional recently expanded, buying 1,000 additional contiguous acres; it now occupies nearly 2,800 acres.

The airport and commerce park are home to a wide array of businesses, including drainage pipe manufacturers, food packagers, aircraft builders and repair firms, distributors, auto testing and racing operations and cattle farmers. One new company operating at the airport is Funder America, a manufacturer of melamine-laminated particleboard.

Funder has 50-plus employees at its new 60,000-square-foot plant. The $8.5 million project received a state Rural Infrastructure Fund Grant of $440,000 for storm water retention work. The airport also worked with federal and local partners to fund another $1 million for infrastructure for the Funder America project. "It is the most modern manufacturing facility in the region," says Willingham.

Also new at Sebring Regional is Concrete Building Projects, where about 50 employees make pre-stressed products at a 10-acre site. E-Stone USA Corp., the U.S. arm of Italy-based Trend Group SpA, tapped a variety of incentives when it recently opened a 150-employee plant to manufacture granite products at the airport.

Distribution made easy

Elsewhere in Highlands, there's plenty of business activity. Lowe's recently opened a 147,000-square-foot, 175-employee home improvement center on U.S. 27, the main northsouth route through the Heartland. In Avon Park, Wal-Mart has a new 180,000-square-foot supercenter.

At Palm Grove Business Park in Sebring, Amerikan, a manufacturer of planter pots used in nurseries, recently began production. Also at Palm Grove, Stoam Sebring LLC will manufacture steel-framed, polystyrene foam-insulated component wall systems beginning in 2007.

"We plan to build a 50,000-squarefoot building and employ up to 150 people," says managing partner Jere Creed. "We've had excellent support from local, regional and state economic development folks, including Enterprise Florida." Why the Highlands location? "You've got a central location for all the cities in Florida. It makes distribution easy," says Creed.

In Okeechobee County, a new 900-job business will soon be opening. Royal Concrete Concepts' new modular building manufacturing facility is expected to create more than 1,300 new high-wage jobs in all, including ancillary employment. Company employees will earn wages 115% of the county average at the new plant, which is located on 173 acres off U.S. 98, across from the countyowned industrial park.

Royal, which makes portable classrooms and modular buildings for federal use, broke ground in mid-2006 on the $20 million project. A state Economic Development Transportation Fund grant of more than $1.5 million was used to pay for road improvements and a rail line to the site, and Royal will work with Indian River Community College to train employees.

"Local support is such an important factor in our ability to succeed. We're thrilled with this expansion, and so proud of the positive impact we have on the region," says Wally Sanger, Royal Concrete president.


Rural expertise

"Royal Concrete is precisely the type of high-wage, high-value company that we're committed to helping," says Lynn Topel, executive director of Florida's Heartland Rural Economic Development Initiative. FHREDI works with local partners, Enterprise Florida, Workforce Florida and economic developers from the Governor's Office to help companies with site selection, incentives, workforce training and other necessities.

Florida's designation of the sixcounty Heartland as a "rural area of critical economic concern" enables special opportunities for grants and state programs, and counties can often get grant funding without the usually required local match of funds.

FHREDI also works on regional plans for education, housing and transportation. In housing, for instance, an FHREDI consultant helped Heartland counties form a regional housing consortium, which was federally recognized, to gain an additional $750,000 for the region annually. The consortium will decide how to best use these funds to address workforce housing.

Also, FHREDI is exploring ways to enhance broadband capability in the region. Meanwhile, Florida's Freshwater Frontier, the tourism arm of FHREDI, works with state tourism officials to promote the region's pristine lakes, creeks, rivers, forests and wildlife, as well as heritage events, small towns and landmarks.

"Florida's Freshwater Frontier has achieved remarkable success promoting tourism and recreation in this part of Florida," says Gov. Jeb Bush, who recently awarded a $52,000 grant to the marketers.


Growing ecotourism

"Gloriously natural Glades County" is enjoying a tourism boost following the recent designation of county seat Moore Haven as a Florida Main Street Community. The city gained startup funds and training and technical support for downtown revitalization and historic preservation.

Glades--known for its citrus, produce, sugar cane and fishing--has 30-plus miles of shoreline on the west side of Lake Okeechobee and 16 miles of frontage on the Caloosahatchee River. Moore Haven is on the river, part of the Florida Intracoastal Waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Glades County Economic Development Council Executive Director Tracy Whirls says she is working to capitalize on the 6,000 watercraft that pass through Moore Haven every year. Also in Glades, Adventure Tours of South Florida is building an environmentally friendly lodge in Lakeport on Lake Okeechobee. The 16-unit lodge will open in 2007 as the first newly constructed, state-certified "green lodge" in Florida.

"It will be an all-inclusive resort for sportsmen and ecotourists," says Don Coughlin, operations manager. Adventure Tours will hire local guides and catering, and is expected to have a $2.2 million first-year economic impact with just 50% occupancy.

Glades' 20-square-mile Enterprise Zone includes all of Moore Haven, plus areas along U.S. 27 and S.R. 80. The Enterprise Zone has been re-designated, making businesses and some residents eligible for tax incentives.


New opportunities

Hendry County has more orange trees (25.6 million) than any other Florida county and is economically strong in other areas also. The city of Clewiston recently bought 185 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp., including the Clewiston Public Airport property and two contiguous 40-acre parcels.

On its newly bought land, the city is developing 24 lots at the newly created Clewiston Commerce Park, which is located in a state enterprise zone that offers tax advantages and incentives to businesses. "We have a tenant very interested in moving in there," says Janice Groves, Hendry Economic Development Council manager. The asyet- unnamed company should open with about 25 employees and grow up to 100 jobs by 2009, she adds.

The Hendry EDC is providing $250,000 to the incoming business and is likely to help with infrastructure costs, and Clewiston is providing another $250,000, says Groves. "The company will also bring lots of companion companies."

Meanwhile, at the county-owned Airglades Industrial Park on U.S. 27, a large truck stop, hotel and restaurant complex is planned just northwest of Clewiston. And, says Groves, "there is a tremendous amount of residential growth in the county as well."

A central location, excellent transportation and thousands of acres of affordable land make Florida's Heartland a wise choice for expanding businesses.

In the Hendry city of LaBelle, recent construction includes the 3,900- square-foot Olde Cypress Bank, a $770,000 project, and the $1.6 million Royal's Courthouse Square, with approximately 27,000 square feet of commercial and professional space.

Hardee County land use is more than one-half agricultural, with substantial forests, range and wetlands providing great outdoor activities.

Mining company IMC-Agrico Co. (now Mosaic) transferred the 1,261- acre Hardee Lakes Park in northwestern Hardee to the county. The Hardee Lakes Park Fish Management Area, which consists of four reclaimed phosphate pits transformed into lakes, offers some of the best bass fishing in the region as well as many other recreational opportunities.

New businesses coming to Hardee include a roof truss company, says county economic developer Betty Croy, and there's plenty of power to support more. The Seminole Electric Cooperative-owned Payne Creek Generating Station in Bowling Green is a 500-megawatt plant.

The plant, which primarily uses natural gas as its fuel source and went into service in January 2002, has an annual payroll of more than $2.5 million. Plans call for an expansion, with additional units in service late in 2006.

-- Gary Shepherd