With its rolling green woodlands and wide open spaces, South Central is unique among Florida’s eight economic development regions. To site your business here is to be, quite literally, in the “Center of Everything.” Within a 150-mile radius are 10 commercial airports, eight deep-water ports, three interstate highways and Florida’s Turnpike, plus the Okeechobee Waterway, a system of navigable rivers and canals linking Florida’s east and west coasts through Lake Okeechobee. This is Florida’s heartland, where agribusiness thrives alongside manufacturing, distribution and solar power, and residents still find time to browse antique shops for hidden treasure, take walks in the wild and enjoy leisurely Sunday afternoon drives.
Logistics & Transportation
Florida’s South Central region is an ideal spot to facilitate the distribution of goods and supplies. In addition to interstate highway availability, this region is home to four U.S. highways and 12 state roads as well as ready rail cargo capabilities via CSX and South Central Florida Express, and passenger service at Amtrak stops in Sebring and Okeechobee.
Air access is on the rise here too. At Sebring Regional Airport in Highlands County, a new 50,000-sq.-ft. Hangar Complex, with dedicated parking areas and individual buildings ranging from 8,000 to 15,000 square feet each, is in the planning stages. Construction on the first stand-alone structure — a 15,000-sq.-ft. hangar — is slated to begin in 2022. Also planned: a 1,776-foot extension to Runway 01-19 to accommodate existing and future airport operations. Sebring Regional, which combines a commerce park and airport on 2,000 acres, is a designated Foreign Trade Zone.
Meanwhile, at Airglades International Airport in Clewiston, construction continues on a $2.1 million, 4,000-sq.-ft. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility, as part of a redevelopment of the existing general aviation airport into a perishable air cargo hub. In February 2021, Airglades welcomed its first MD-80 series aircraft, a first step toward possibly partnering with U.S. carrier World Atlantic Airlines to provide maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services.
Individual companies that rely on distribution capabilities have found success in Florida’s South Central region too. Case in point: Sebring-based Bernie Little Distributors. Wholesaler for Anheuser Busch and other specialized local and national craft beers, the firm, which opened its original distribution center here in 1985, today employs more than 40 workers to process and deliver beverage products to some 400 retail accounts in Highlands alone, as well as to Polk, Hardee and Okeechobee counties.
KEY PLAYERS: Bernie Little Distributors, Sebring; Walmart Distribution Center, Arcadia; Walpole Feed & Supply, Okeechobee
All six South Central counties rank among the top statewide for cattle and calves with Okeechobee and Highlands leading the pack in 2020 at 175,000 and 120,000 head, respectively.
Fresh fruits and vegetables have an important role to play too. This region is the number one producer of fresh tomatoes in the U.S., and oranges, grapefruit and tangerines remain among this area’s top agricultural crops. In 2020, citrus firm Alico made news with the purchase of 3,280 acres of groves in Hendry County, bringing its total Florida citrus acreage to more than 48,000.
Other top-notch agricultural players in Hendry include Frey Farms, in LaBelle, the nation’s largest producer of watermelon; C&B Farms, in Clewiston, the largest source of culinary herbs along the East Coast; and the big daddy of them all, U.S. Sugar, the largest producer of sugarcane in the U.S. by volume.
KEY PLAYERS: Lykes Brothers, Lake Placid, Okeechobee, LaBelle; The Mosaic Company, Hardee and DeSoto counties; U.S. Sugar, Clewiston
With an abundance of available land and sunshine, Florida’s South Central region offers an ideal environment to cultivate solar power. In 2009, the state’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light, built its first solar power plant in DeSoto. In 2016, FPL opened its second DeSoto County solar power plant — Citrus Solar Energy Center — on the same site, but three times the size of the first. Next came Wildflower and Cattle Ranch solar energy centers, followed by a fifth facility — Rodeo Solar Energy Center comprising 300,000 panels and generating 74.5 megawatts — which began powering some 15,000 homes in May 2021.
Hendry and Okeechobee have also loomed large as solar energy sites in FP&L’s goal to become this state’s largest generator of solar energy. FP&L added Hammock Solar Energy Center in 2018 and in 2020, Blue Heron Solar Energy Center and Okeechobee Solar Energy Center. Scheduled to open by the end of 2021 are two more Okeechobee sites — Fort Drum Solar Energy Center and Lakeside Solar Energy Center.
Meanwhile, Duke Energy Florida, Florida’s other primary utility, is adding solar facilities too. In addition to its Lake Placid Solar Power Plant, Duke plans to open two more in Hardee County: Charlie Creek Solar Power Plant on 610 acres and Fort Green Solar Power Plant on 500 acres.
KEY PLAYERS: Florida Power & Light, Juno Beach; Duke Energy Florida, St. Petersburg
Companies making everything from sunscreen to fertilizer have found right sites and a ready workforce in South Central Florida, including these production facilities:
• Stream2Sea (eco-conscious skin and hair care products) in Wauchula;
• CitraPac (FruitPearls and other frozen fruit healthy snacks) in Sebring;
• Steel Blue Fabrication (prefabricated meter sets; regulator stations; manifolds; and complete measurement stations/skids) in Avon Park; and
• Wedgworth (custom-blended fertilizer products) in Moore Haven.
Among new activity in this sector:
• Nucor Corporation began operations at its new $240-million steel plant in Frostproof. The mill is expected to produce up to 350,000 metric tons of rebar annually from Florida’s abundant supply of scrap metal.
• Bautech USA continues construction of its new facility at Okeechobee Airport Industrial Park which is expected to produce 800 metric tons/day of precast concrete products.
KEY PLAYERS: CitraPac, Sebring; Entegra Roof Tile, Okeechobee; Florikan, Bowling Green; Stream2Sea, Wauchula
Life & Leisure
Looking for a clue as to when life might return to normal following the pandemic? Just circle the month of March on your 2022 calendar. That’s when three of South Central’s most iconic events return in full force.
Up first is the four-day Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival at Sunshine Grove, a non-stop music fest reminiscent of Woodstock featuring a multitude of musical acts and some 25,000 spectators.
Next up is the 94th annual Arcadia All Florida Championship Rodeo at Mosaic Arena with a full complement of rodeo events.
And finally, the 70th annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring endurance race and four-day car-themed party. Can’t make this particular race? Not to worry — activities at Sebring International Raceway include 175 individual events on more than 250 days throughout the year.
Need an Excuse to Celebrate?
If there’s one thing the people of Florida’s South Central region love, it’s a good festival. Animals, vegetables, flowers, fruit, fish – you name it. Among the annual “honorees” are: catfish (January in Moore Haven); sour oranges (January in Lakeport); speckled perch (January in Okeechobee); watermelon (May in Arcadia); caladium (July/August in Lake Placid); and newly hatched baby alligators (August in Palmdale).
So Much of the Wild to See and Do
Here are some suggestions for interesting things you can see and do at little or no cost:
• Take a long walk around Okeechobee — the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S.
• Try hunting for fossils — mammoths are known to have once lived in these parts.
• Keep your eye out for the elusive Florida panther; best viewing times are dawn and dusk.
• Get to know some real Floridians at Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation ... maybe even spend the night in an authentic chickee hut.
• Gaze up at a sky full of stars. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park near Okeechobee is remote enough to make a visit worth your while.