South Central is an anomaly among Florida’s eight economic development regions. It has neither a saltwater coastline nor a theme park. But what it does have are wide open spaces and an enviable geographic location. Three interstate highways and the Okeechobee Waterway, a system of navigable rivers and canals linking Florida’s east and west coasts through Lake Okeechobee, put nearly 90% of the state’s entire population within a 150-mile radius. This is Florida’s heartland where citrus growers and cattle ranchers do business alongside manufacturing facilities and solar power plants. To site a company here is to enjoy the best of two worlds — backyard picnics and porch swings close at hand, with beaches and big, bustling cities just a short drive away.
Blessed with an abundance of two important commodities — available land and sunshine — Florida’s South Central region offers the ideal environment for solar power generation. In 2009, Florida Power & Light chose to site the state’s first solar power plant — DeSoto Solar Energy Center — in this region. Next came FPL’s Citrus Solar Energy Center in 2016 and, two years later, its Wildflower Solar Energy Center. These three facilities generated enough solar power — more than any other county in the state could claim — for DeSoto to be dubbed Florida’s “solar capital.”
A fourth FPL facility — Hammock Solar Energy Center — opened in Hendry County in 2018. With 74.5 megawatts of solar capacity each, the Citrus, Wildflower and Hammock plants collectively generate enough electricity to power approximately 45,000 homes. And the drive to improve and enlarge South Central’s solar power footprint didn’t stop there.
In early 2018, FPL unveiled a solar-plus-storage system at the Citrus Solar Energy Center. For the Citrus plant, this has meant a potential increase of more than 500,000 kilowatt-hours delivered to the electric grid per year and increased capacity to store energy for dispatch to the grid at a later time.
Fast forward to January 2019. FPL launched its “30-by-30” plan, committing to the installation of 30 million more solar panels across Florida by 2030. Six months later, FPL began construction on 10 new solar power plants, three of which are located in the South Central region. Blue Heron Solar Energy Center in Hendry County, Cattle Ranch Solar Energy in DeSoto County and Okeechobee Solar Energy Center in Okeechobee County opened in spring 2020, bringing FPL’s total number of solar power plants in Florida to 24.
Keeping with its goal of 14 universal solar power plants in operation across the state by 2023, Duke Energy Florida’s 45-megawatt Lake Placid Solar Power Plant began operations in Highlands County in December 2019. In August 2020, Duke announced plans to build an 18-megawatt lithium battery storage site at the Lake Placid plant to increase energy security and enable the integration of more renewables. The 74.9-megawatt Charlie Creek Solar Plant on 610 acres in Hardee County is due to be completed in late 2021.
KEY PLAYERS: Florida Power & Light, Juno Beach; Duke Energy Florida, St. Petersburg
Logistics & Transportation
Travel by air is a little easier for goods and people in Hendry County now that both of its airports have undergone upgrades: .
• At LaBelle Municipal Airport, a new $5.6-million, 6,240-sq.-ft. terminal building opened in 2019. The new facility, which features a pilot lounge and conference room, is expected to include a restaurant that will be open to the public.
• At Airglades International Airport in Clewiston, ground was broken in early 2020 for a new $2.1 million, 4,000-sq.-ft. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility, built to handle incoming perishable goods, relieve congestion at Miami International Airport, and expand shipping logistics opportunities with a less expensive option. An estimated 1,000 new jobs are expected at Airglades as a result.
The six counties comprising Florida’s South Central region are spread across 5,020 square miles and there’s no one, centrally located super-highway linking them all to fast food and gasoline. But not to worry, Wawa is coming to town. The Pennsylvania-based convenience store chain has three sites under construction across the region: in Sebring, Lake Placid and Arcadia and a fourth site is rumored to be in the works.
KEY PLAYERS: Walmart Distribution Center, Arcadia; Walpole Feed & Supply, Okeechobee
The Results Companies, a leading provider of customer experience management services — aka, call centers — has expanded its presence in South Central Florida with the opening of its Sebring Contact Center. The firm employs more than 30,000 associates in 38 locations across the U.S., Latin America and the Philippines. Up to 125 new jobs are expected at the new Sebring center.
Companies making everything from sunscreen to fertilizer have found the right sites and a ready workforce in South Central Florida. Among manufacturers with production facilities in the region are:
• PFMan (high precision parts, molds and fittings for many uses and industries), Pacer Marine Engineering (electrical supplies for boat builders) and Florikan (controlled-release fertilizer) in Bowling Green.
• Howard Fertilizer in Lake Placid.
• Stream2Sea (eco-conscious skin care products and hand sanitizers) in Wauchula.
• CitraPack (FruitPearls and other frozen real fruit healthy snacks) and Steel Blue Fabrication (customized measurement and control products, such as propane and natural gas meters and gauges) in Sebring.
• Maxant Aluminum products (buttons and buckles) in Moore Haven.
There’s new activity in this sector too:
• Bautech USA is opening a U.S. facility in two buildings at Okeechobee Airport Industrial Park where it plans to produce up to 800 metric tons of precast concrete construction products per day. The Guatemala-based company plans to hire approximately 20 managers and engineers with the expectation of generating its first precast concrete products by year’s end.
• Construction has begun at the new $240-million Nucor Florida Steel Plant in Frostproof that, when completed by fall 2020, is expected to produce 350,000 tons of rebar from scrap metal each year. Although the plant is located in Polk County, Highland County and Avon Park, in particular, anticipate economic benefits from the new arrival. Work is already underway to extend the city of Avon Park’s water and sewer lines to provide services to Nucor, and a portion of the 235 workers needed to staff the facility may well come from the city of Avon Park’s labor force.
KEY PLAYERS: CitraPack, Sebring; Entegra Roof Tile, Okeechobee; Florikan, Bowling Green; Stream2Sea, Wauchula
Agriculture is big business in Florida, and South Central’s six counties rank among the state’s highest in value of agricultural products sold. According to the most recent USDA Ag Census, Hendry leads the list at just under $500 million followed by Highlands and Okeechobee at $273 and $257 million each. With 59,000 acres of citrus land in production, Highland County growers produced 7.9 million boxes of fruit in 2017-18, second only to Polk County in Florida’s Tampa Bay region which had 10,000 more acres in production.
Nuco Citrus plans to purchase 193 acres in east DeSoto County, where it will process pectin from citrus peels and other leftovers from the juice-making process.
KEY PLAYERS: Lykes Brothers, Lake Placid, Okeechobee, LaBelle; The Mosaic Company, Hardee and DeSoto counties; United States Sugar, Clewiston
AdventHealth Sebring opened its newly expanded $17.5 million state-of-the-art Heart and Vascular Center in June 2020. The 24,000-sq.-ft. facility, providing 24 private rooms dedicated to heart and vascular patients and a fourth additional catheterization lab, is the only certified heart and vascular center in the South Central region.
South Central is home to South Florida State College with four campuses offering bachelor and associate degree programs in fields such as accounting, agriculture, business, elementary education, health sciences and information technology as well as certificates in a variety of workplace specialties. In January 2021, SFSC will begin providing educational services to active duty members of the armed forces by way of the U.S. Naval Academy Community College.
The Hendry Glades campus of Florida SouthWestern State College in LaBelle and the Dixon Henry campus of Indian River State College in Okeechobee also offer educational support.
Life & Leisure
The least populated of Florida’s eight regions, South Central provides a little glimpse of how things used to be before condos and theme parks. And there’s no shortage of fun things to see and do, from paddling the Peace River to playing a round of golf at Mosaic’s Streamsong Resort built on former phosphate mines. Keep an eye out for the elusive and hard to spot Florida panther, especially at dawn or dusk; get to know the original Floridians and their “chickees” at Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation; or visit the remote Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park near Okeechobee, said to be the best spot for stargazing in Florida.
COVID-19 put a damper on 2020’s NCAA Final Four competition. But who needs brackets and basketball to celebrate March Madness when South Central has a brand of its own? Three back-to-back — and sometimes overlapping — events take place here in March every year. The madness begins in DeSoto County with the four-day Arcadia All Florida Championship Rodeo at Mosaic Arena; the 2021 event will be No. 93. Next up: the “Mobile 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring” endurance race and four-day car-themed party, now in its 69th year. And wrapping it all up, the four-day Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival at Sunshine Grove, a “Woodstock-on-Steroids” event featuring 80 bands and DJs, and at least 25,000 spectators, come rain or come shine.
South Central loves a good festival to celebrate anything and everything. Animals, vegetables, flowers, fruit, fish — you name it, they all get a shout-out here. Typical “honorees” in this region throughout the year include: watermelon (Arcadia); swamp cabbage (LaBelle); sugar (Clewiston); alligator hatching (Palmdale); sour oranges (Lakeport); caladiums (Lake Placid); catfish (Moore Haven); and speckled perch (Okeechobee).