Polk County and two of its I-4 municipalities plan to join forces and work together on a new innovation zone aimed at bringing in high-paying jobs. The brainchild of the Central Florida Development Council creates a cross–boundary vision for growth surrounding Florida Polytechnic University and transportation innovator SunTrax in the I-4 Corridor, midway between Orlando and Tampa.
The Central Florida Innovation District would include portions of Auburndale, Lakeland and unincorporated areas of Polk County. The district would span from I-4 and State Road 33, encompassing the university campus, and move west toward Auburndale Teco Trail and then south toward Braddock Road, south of SunTrax.
“I call it the convergence of industry, education and research,” Sean Malott, president of the CFDC, told GrowthSpotter. “Right now, we’re creating the vision as far as the area goes. We have created a boundary map. … The next step is (to) create an economic development and marketing plan.”
The Innovation District and its oversight board also needs the Polk County Commission’s approval. A vote was set for the Sept. 3 meeting, but Hurricane Dorian’s approach postponed it, Malott said. The Memorandum of Understanding that was approved by the cities of Auburndale and Lakeland last Thursday is on the agenda for the next county meeting on Sept. 17.
“We hope the county will adopt the MOU,” Malott said. “The commission is very supportive of the concept.”
That concept is one that envisions planned growth in four research and development industry segments: health technology; advanced manufacturing; information sciences and engineering; and mobility, Malott said.
Florida Poly and SunTrax are the anchors for the innovation district. Florida Poly is the state’s newest university and only STEM university, which means the school offers degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Suntrax is really the headquarters for transportation and mobility as we move forward in this state,” Malott said, “and we would like to see them be a national or international player.
“SunTrax is there because of its proximity to Florida Poly, and other companies want to be in that proximity,” he said. SunTrax recently completed its first phase in June - an investment of $40 million – used for internal testing. The second phase – a $90 million investment – is expected to start this fall, Malott said.
“As the anchor tenants – they are going to be the job drivers,” Auburndale Community Development Director Amy Palmer said. The three jurisdictions will be getting together and meeting and talking about gateway areas and land use and zoning, making sure we can accommodate research and development, which is what we want to see in this innovation district– one cohesive district.”
The agreement also for “making sure that one of jurisdiction doesn’t approve something in the innovation district that doesn’t belong,” Palmer said. Action on the idea of an innovation district and the MOU started moving forward quickly after the CFDC in April took about 40 people on fact-finding trip to Raleigh, North Carolina to see the Centennial Campus innovation district at N.C. State Univerity. Florida Poly President Randy Avent worked at NCSU before moving to Lakeland. He sent a letter of support and encouragement for the MOU to all three jurisdictions.
In Centennial Campus, the university owned the land for development and the state helped facilitate legislation for attracting business to partner with N.C. State. In Polk County, much of the land is privately held. CFDC’s Malott said conversations have been had with some landowners. He said planning will include the landowners so that their vision is included.
“It’s long-range vision. It’s not something that will immediately take shape tomorrow. We’re still in that vision stage,” Malott said. “We’re still probably years in the making. But we first have to have a vision to know where we’re headed and one that is collaborative and shows a desire to raise the bar of what’s possible. “
Part of Florida Poly’s vision is a research park adjacent to the university, Maggie Mariucci, Assistant Vice President of University Relations, told GrowthSpotter. “That is something we are very excited about.”
Florida Poly opened its doors to its first 550 students in 2014. That number has grown to about 1,350, Mariucci said. She calls the innovation district “game changing for the state.”
“It’s not only about this area and this region,” she said of the district and the university. “We were created to be an economic driver for the state of Florida.”
The University of Florida launched its Innovation District with the City of Gainesville, while Osceola County’s NeoCity is home to BRIDG, a research cooperative affiliated with the University of Central Florida.
“We’re trying to paint the picture for companies and developers who may want to be part of this,” Malott said. “We look forward to being able to share this soon.”