by John M. Dunn
Updated 2 yearss ago
"The Big O" — Lake Okeechobee — is a draw for recreational boaters and a vital piece of the navigable Okeechobee Waterway linking Florida's east and west coasts. [Photo: VISIT FLORIDA]
Geography is destiny in South Central Florida, where cattle lands, citrus groves, sugarcane fields, phosphate deposits, abundant water and subtropical foliage dominate the landscape. While many residents want to preserve the region's natural, relaxed environment, they are open to new opportunities, actively courting companies that seek affordable land and room to grow.
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At A Glance
Demographics for the South Central/ Heartland Region can be found at Business Florida's interactive map of Florida.
A $128-million project expanding the Peace River water plant to a 6-billion gallon storage capacity ensures a steady water supply.
Who Lives Here
New faces: 28% of South Central's 253,000-plus residents are Hispanic; Hendry County has the region's largest Hispanic population — 49%.
Changing perspectives: The city of Okeechobee's slogan, "We have old values and new visions," could easily symbolize this entire region, which has experienced significant demographic and economic change in recent years due to creeping urbanization. Ranchers, farmers, miners, truckers, teachers and service workers continue to dominate the labor force.
» FPL Group and Florida Power & Light Company operate the nation's largest photovoltaic solar facility in Arcadia using 90,000 solar panels to generate 42,000 megawatt-hours of electricity each year.
» Construction is under way at LS9's advanced bio-diesel demonstration facility in Okeechobee to enable the production of low-cost, low-carbon "UltraClean Diesel" fuel.
» Groundbreaking for BP America's ethanol plant — the first cellulosic commercial grade operation of its kind in the U.S. — is scheduled for early 2012 in Highlands County.
» Southeast Renewable Fuels expects to break ground at a Hendry County site in late 2011 on a $100-million plant to convert sweet sorghum into ethanol.
» Three interstate highways, Florida's Turnpike, four U.S. highways and 12 state roads traverse this region or pass near it, providing access to many major urban areas — Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers and Naples — and links to important markets throughout the Southeast.
» Efforts are under way to build an "inland port" or integrated logistics center on 4,000 acres in Moore Haven to serve as a warehousing, distribution and manufacturing hub for products and raw materials brought by truck, ship and rail from Florida and East Coast sites.
» Sugarcane and citrus production are the economic powerhouses. Many farmers are expanding their operations to include "energy grasses" and other crops for the significant energy projects under way in the region and to create a sustainable in-state alternative fuel supply.
Right Place, Right Skills
For Cross Country Automotive Services, the nation's largest provider of roadside assistance to motorists, the decision to site a customer call center in Sebring came down to just two reasons. One was the high quality of business assistance they got — and still enjoy — from the Highlands County Economic Development Council. The other was population growth (13% between 2000 and 2010), which would assure an ample supply of workers with "the right skill sets — good speaking abilities, courtesy and empathy — that are needed to provide roadside assistance to distressed motorists who call in from across the U.S.," says Sandra Savage, Cross Country's vice president of human resources.
Next page: South Central Florida's quality of life and notable employers
The grueling 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race will celebrate its 60th anniversary at Sebring International Raceway in March 2012. [Photo: JGKATZ]
Quality of Life
Getting back to nature: Ecotourism is a favorite "sport" in Florida's heartland, which is home to Lake Okeechobee — the nation's second largest freshwater lake — plus dozens of smaller lakes and streams.
Festival fun: This region's small towns are perfect venues for special events, the likes of which you won't find elsewhere: The All-Florida Championship Rodeo (Arcadia); Seminole arts and crafts and alligator wrestling (Chalo Nitka Festival and Rodeo); Pioneer Park Days (Zolfo Springs); Sugar Festival (Clewiston); and Swamp Cabbage Festival (Labelle). For racing enthusiasts, there's Sebring International Raceway, the oldest permanent road track in America.
- Wal-Mart Distribution Center, Arcadia
- Walpole Inc., Okeechobee
- Cross Country Automotive Services, Sebring
- Larson Dairy Inc., Okeechobee
- Lykes Brothers Inc., near Brighton Seminole Reservation, Glades County
- The Mosaic Company, Wauchula
- Southern Gardens Citrus, Clewiston
- United States Sugar Corporation, Clewiston