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South Central / Heartland: Powering Florida's Future

South Central/ Heartland Florida
Demographics for the South Central/ Heartland Region can be found at Business Florida's interactive map of Florida.
South Central/ Heartland Resources:

Universities/Colleges
• South Florida Community College

Airports
• Sebring Regional Airport

Florida’s South Central/Heartland is a sprawling, largely rural region with business assets that include excellent transportation, low overhead and a ready-to-go workforce. Positioned in the middle of the relatively narrow Florida peninsula, this 5,000-square-mile region comprising six counties offers a peaceful respite that is readily accessible and conveniently close to the state’s more heavily populated coastal urban areas. Agriculture is a primary economic engine here, while tourism is becoming increasingly important. And, in recent years, energy has emerged as a new focus with providers discovering how the region’s many attributes can be harnessed to help fuel Florida’s future.

Desoto County

In June 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a comprehensive alternative energy bill aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and encouraging investments in renewable energy technologies, especially wind and solar power. In DeSoto County, efforts were already under way to put this legislation into action. Before the end of 2008, Florida Power & Light (FP&L), the state’s largest investor-owned utility, will begin building the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center on 1,525 acres near the Hardee County line. When completed, the project will provide 25 megawatts of photovoltaic solar capacity, making it the world’s largest photovoltaic solar facility. Located just north of Arcadia, the new solar plant is slated to be fully operational by 2010; however, more than 3,000 homes could begin using the clean energy as early as 2009.

Solidly Grounded

Agriculture is the South Central/Heartland’s historic economic foundation. Four of this region’s six counties are among the largest in Florida for citrus acreage: Hendry, with some 15 million citrus trees on 95,000 acres, ranks 2nd, followed by Highlands (4th), DeSoto (5th) and Hardee (7th). CF Industries Inc., one of North America’s largest manufacturers and distributors of fertilizer products, employs 175 at its Hardee County-based phosphate rock mine and ore beneficiation plant.

Part of an FP&L initiative to install 300 megawatts of solar energy in Florida, the center will mean hundreds of high-wage construction and operations jobs for the region.

Construction Under Way: Elsewhere in DeSoto County, GEO Group is building the 720-bed Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia. Slated to open in mid-2009, this $60-million state facility will employ approximately 300 people. In addition, the county has received a $500,000 federal grant to be used for the construction of affordable housing.

Highlands County

Swimmers at Fanning Springs
Dr. Bradley Krohn’s interest in sweet sorghum as a source of ethanol could one day generate an alternative fuel for Floridians. [Photo (right): Mark Wemple]

A Sweet Source of Fuel: In Highlands County, Dr. Bradley Krohn offers what he calls “one part of the solution to the gasoline crisis.” Krohn, an ethanol production technology expert who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, is co-founder of U.S. EnviroFuels, which aims to build a sweet sorghum-ethanol production plant. The $60-million, 40-acre project in Lake Placid has “tremendous political support,” says Krohn, citing the interest expressed by Highlands County commissioners, Congressman Tim Mahoney, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and Gov. Crist. In April 2008, the county commission approved a biofuel ordinance allowing for sugar-to-ethanol production. The plant is expected to produce 20 million gallons of biofuel a year and will generate about 30 high-wage jobs. A $7-million Florida Farm to Fuel grant is helping fund the construction. And because the plant is located in a Rural Enterprise Zone, the company may be eligible to receive sales tax credits and corporate income tax credits for job creation, business equipment sales tax refunds and other benefits. The projected completion date is 2010.

Sorghum
Sorghum

Citrus and Cattle Are Big Business: In Highlands alone, citrus employs about 3,000 people full time and year-round; that number jumps to nearly 6,000 during the October-May harvesting season. In addition, more than 60% of the county’s 700,000 acres is used for cattle grazing; Highlands ranks first among Florida’s 67 counties for beef cattle.

Retail Growth: Sebring Regional Airport — the only U.S. airport to encompass both a Foreign Trade Zone and a Community Redevelopment Agency — continues to be a major economic driver for Highlands County. Hotel and retail industry expansion in 2008 includes the addition of 29 guest rooms, 12 suites and a 4,000-square-foot ballroom/conference center at Sheraton Four Points at Sebring Regional Airport. At Shelby Crossing shopping center in Highlands County, new development includes a Dress Barn and an Olive Garden restaurant; a Super Wal-Mart recently opened in the town of Avon Park.

Hendry County

Ready for Business: The city of Clewiston plans to open its new, shovel-ready commerce park in late 2008. Approximately $1.3 million has been spent to prepare new infrastructure — roads, water, sewer and electric utilities — to serve 10 lots at the Clewiston Commerce Park. Officials hope to attract light industrial, manufacturing and assembly, research and development and similar businesses to the 34-acre site. Also in Clewiston, a new $1.2-million, 16,000-square-foot public works building opened in September 2008, and The Knapheide Manufacturing Company — which converts truck chassis to the specific needs of individual companies — is planning to build a new plant on a 21-acre site. A privately owned, 240-acre business park is planned for a site southeast of Clewiston. Infrastructure is already in place and rail access is available at the Weekly Bros. Industrial Park, which will likely open in 2009 once zoning for heavy industrial use is approved.

Fuel for Tomorrow: In Hendry County — home to thousands of acres of cattle ranches, citrus groves, state forests and wildlife management areas — Scotland native David Stewart has big plans: To transform abundantly available citrus waste into clean, affordable ethanol. “Citrus waste can produce ethanol at significantly lower cost than corn,” he says. Stewart’s firm, Boca Raton-based CitrusEnergy LLC, has received a $2.5-million state grant to begin building a facility for converting citrus peel to ethanol on the grounds of the Southern Gardens citrus processing plant in Clewiston. The cellulosic ethanol plant, which would be owned and operated by Florida Power & Light, is expected to produce 4 million gallons of ethanol per year. The announcement in June 2008 that the state of Florida intends to acquire the assets of Southern Gardens’ parent company, U.S. Sugar Corporation, slowed the CitrusEnergy project. Stewart, however, remains optimistic about construction of the citrus-peel-to-ethanol plant because, he says, “the state wants those kinds of jobs and this kind of industry.”

HARDEE County

Expansion Planned: Minnesota-based Mosaic Company, a leading producer of fertilizer and ingredients for animal feed and the owner of some 300,000 acres of land in Florida, plans to expand its Polk County-based South Fort Meade Mine southward by 10,856 additional acres into Hardee County. Mosaic officials put Hardee County’s total net fiscal benefit from the mine expansion at $22.6 million and have promised to restore the mined land when mining operations are eventually concluded.

Housing and More: The Hardee County Housing Authority received $500,000 in federal funding to build 20 senior citizen units in Bowling Green. Also, the nonprofit Affordable Housing Solutions for Florida received $1 million in federal funding to build 75 apartments in Wauchula for seniors and 50 apartments for families in Bowling Green. Meanwhile, Peace River Electric Cooperative, which serves 10 Florida counties, including DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands, is building a new $7.5-million, 47,000-square-foot headquarters in Wauchula, slated to be open in 2009.

Organix South
Enjoying Rural Life

From the Hardee County Commerce Park in Bowling Green, Autumn Blum runs a business that connects rural Florida to India, with sales to the Czech Republic and beyond. Her 20-employee firm makes herbal body and hair care products and herbal supplements under the brand names TheraNeem and TheraVeda. Most of the products are derived from the neem tree, which natives in India have relied on as a kind of “village pharmacy” for centuries. The neem oil needed for Organix-South products comes from trees grown on the farm near Bombay that Blum co-owns.

Autumn Blum
A native Floridian and former city dweller, Autumn Blum found a rural location just right for her globally directed company, Organix-South. From her 7,500-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility in rural Hardee County, Blum ships herbal body and hair care products and herbal supplements around the world.
[Photo courtesy of Organix-South]

Organix-South has tripled in size since 2006, and in 2007, moved into its new 7,500-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility in Hardee County. “The workforce is very loyal here,” Blum says, “and we have much greater access to local government. You definitely feel like you’re part of the community here.”

Local economic development officials helped Blum get a waiver of permitting and impact fees, which, she says, made the building much more affordable. Her new headquarters has everything necessary to conduct business globally, including high-speed Internet access via a T1 hookup.

“We love it here,” says Blum, a Florida native and former big city dweller.

Glades County

Water is the Draw: In Glades County, River Forest Yachting Center opened its new 200,000-square-foot indoor yacht storage center in 2008 on the Okeechobee Waterway, which crosses Florida from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The center offers inland storage facilities for nearly 300 boats of up to 90 feet each in length and is expected to be a catalyst for further development. Area economic development officials see the influx of big boats as an important first step in attracting a buyer for eight ripe-for-development waterfront acres adjacent to the Moore Haven city marina. A hotel and restaurant sited on that property, they say, could serve as the anchor for “Main Street Moore Haven,” a program aimed at reviving downtown with 25 commercial spaces. Also planned are improvements at the marina, including 200 linear feet of floating dock, a sea wall, 40 feet of accessory dock for smaller boats, a pump-out station, restrooms and a ships’ store. Nearby, the former Moore Haven Hotel, built in 1915, has been refurbished and renamed. The River House now includes four 3-bedroom apartments.

Okeechobee County

Promoting Natural Beauty: In addition to providing easy access for companies with widespread logistics and distribution needs, Okeechobee County is noted for its natural beauty. With a host of visitor amenities, this county is particularly appealing to travelers seeking a glimpse of “old Florida.” In early 2008, the city of Okeechobee approved a pact with the nonprofit, Gainesville-based Florida Trail Association (FTA), a volunteer organization that builds, maintains, protects and promotes the 1,400-mile-long Florida Trail, one of only eight National Scenic Trails in the U.S. One objective of the Okeechobee-FTA agreement is to raise awareness among local businesses of the trail’s value as an economic resource. Both parties also may apply for targeted grants to assist in community efforts aimed at developing promotional products, educational resources and/or signature events designed to boost nature-based tourism, foster economic development and improve trail-related infrastructure.

In the city of Okeechobee, a new Home Depot opened in early 2008, and KiteProperties plans an 84-room Hampton Inn, slated to open late in 2009. The six-acre Hampton Inn site is off State Road 70 and includes out-parcels where restaurant, retail and office space could be developed.

Swimmers at Fanning Springs
Hikers enjoy natural sights along the 1,400-mile-long Florida Trail.
[Photo: Florida Trail Association]