Polk County Developments

Lake Wales rejects downtown development bid by local business owner

Lake Wales officials remain hopeful a mixed-use development will be built on an underutilized parking lot in downtown even after the city rejected the only bid it received in response to last November’s Request for Proposals.

Development Services Director Mark Bennett told GrowthSpotter the proposal didn’t meet the requirements for the RFP that no more than 50% of the building should be residential. The city-owned property at the southeast corner of Stuart Avenue and Wetmore Street is .43 acres and currently used for surface parking.


Robert Richard, CEO of Lake Wales-based Soval and Naples-based Commerce Park Realty LLC submitted a proposal to build a 4-story apartment building with a mix of studios, 1- and 2-bedroom apartments and no commercial uses or structured parking.

“I think there’s a big need for housing in Lake Wales. There’s a need for housing downtown. And retail Is a little bit dead, especially in the COVID environment and the Amazon environment,” Richard told GrowthSpotter. “Not that it would’t work there, but I wouldn’t be interested in doing any retail space.”


And he says he feels the same about office space. “Everyone is working from home. It’s Zoom and Amazon. It’s hard to compete.”

Richard said he thinks Lake Wales has enough available retail space - space that is empty currently - and room to build, that retail can wait until the people are there.

“I think if you get more people downtown, that there is plenty of retail that can follow. ... If you don’t have an ecosystem that is organically functioning well,” retail won’t work, he said. “Liven up downtown with people and everything else will follow.”

Lake Wales officials were hoping to attract private developers to submit plans for a mixed-use building or buildings with residential and commercial or retail properties. The goal being to help fulfill a vision of a pedestrian-friendly main street district that invites people to stop, live, work and play instead of the drive-through area it is now.

That vision hasn’t changed, and Lake Wales has other projects in the works to make it happen; the parking lot project was just a part of it, Bennett and City Manager James Slaton said.

Richard said he’s still interested in buying the property known as the Stuart and Wetmore Parking Lot Property. And Bennett said Lake Wales is willing to work with him.

The redevelopment site covers .43 acres at the corner of Stuart Avenue and Wetmore Street.

“We’re still engaged in discussions,” Bennett said. “So, we’re not moving forward with that RFP. We’ll try to make that happen. … I think it will happen in time. It would be great to work with Robert, and if not him, then someone else.”

Richard’s proposal stated his opinion that the site was too small for public-private-partnership, and rather than offering to buy the land he proposed a land swap. He offered to exchange 10 lots on N. 2nd Street with the city’s downtown Community Redevelopment Agency for the Stuart-Whetmore site. The 2nd Street property is owned by his company Southwest Holdings USA, Inc.


A benefit of property exchange, he proposed, was that “The CRA might obtain Federal funds to improve Second Street, there after sell or develop the property at a substantial gain.”

City officials were hoping the redevelopment of the property would be a catalyst for more development downtown and when completed would immediately change the landscape with welcoming buildings that had living spaces on top and businesses below. It lies within an opportunity zone, a federal program that offers tax deferrals and possibly tax-free investments in economically-distressed communities.

Lake Wales Connected, whose Downtown Redevelopment Plan includes the Stuart and Wetmore site, had two suggested plan ideas for potential developers that included multiple buildings and a rooftop terrace.

The city’s plans include converting the existing one-way streets to two-way traffic so that drivers don’t just skip through town, murals in different locations, streetscape projects beginning this summer with tree plantings, angled parking, narrowing travel lanes, lighting and landscaping to emphasize the small-town charm.

“As we do more improvements in downtown, that will attract more,” Bennett said. “We think that will happen.”

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