While local officials encourage the idea of the Innovation District at Florida Polytechnic University filled with technology companies, some of the land it would occupy is ripe for development of a different kind — distribution centers, also known as warehouses.
LAKELAND — The map displayed on a screen at a recent meeting of the Florida Polytechnic University Board of Trustees reflected the future as envisioned by some of Polk County’s most influential people.
Florida Poly President Randy Avent described the concept of the Central Florida Innovation District, an area encompassing the university campus and land to the west, east and southeast. The district’s four sections appeared on the map highlighted in red, purple, green and orange.
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But all was not rosy as Avent updated trustees on current realities. While he and other local officials encourage the idea of the Innovation District filled with technology companies, some of the land it would occupy is ripe for development of a different kind — distribution centers, also known as warehouses.
Avent mentioned recent talk of a sprawling distribution center planned for the western section of the Innovation District.
“I would advocate, if you have a 1.5 million-square-foot truck stop in the middle of your research park, you’re probably not going to have much of a research park because it’s not going to be conducive to what people call the creative class,” Avent said.
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Florida Poly officials and other local leaders have advocated for the creation of a research park around the university since its opening in 2014. The Central Florida Development Council, Polk County’s main economic promotion group, recently unveiled the concept of the Central Florida Innovation District (CFID), which incorporates both Florida Poly and SunTrax, a state-owned vehicle technology site to the southeast in Auburndale.
But economic realities are colliding with those visions, raising concerns that the demand for more warehouses along the Interstate 4 corridor will swallow the land before high-tech businesses can be attracted.
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Amy Palmer, Auburndale’s community development director, said she shares Avent’s concerns.
“There’s still a lot of land left in the Innovation District, and if one distribution center starts a trend of another distribution center and another distribution center, then you have eaten up all of the land and then you don’t have an Innovation District anymore,” Palmer said. “So that’s really what the concern is over those types of projects in that area.”
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The CFDC held a meeting at Florida Poly in late October to reveal the concept for the Innovation District. President and CEO Sean Mallott said the CFDC invited owners of land in the area to the “informational preview.”
The centerpiece of the project is a conceptual map based on an aerial photo of the area showing the district’s four sections: health technology to the west; information sciences and engineering around the Florida Poly campus; advanced manufacturing east of campus; and mobility and innovation, south of Pace Road and incorporating SunTrax.
The CFDC commissioned Straughn Trout Architects and The Lunz Group to develop the design concept.
“We’re really fortunate to have these major investments of Florida Poly and SunTrax in this area, and now it’s, ‘How do we leverage that to really be a magnet for the types of companies that want to be associated with the high value of talent that’s coming out of Florida Poly?’ ” Mallott said. “So it’s a unique opportunity, and we think this vision is important to help market the potential and it’s really ours as a community to really leverage and bring into fruition.”
The district comprises parts of Lakeland, Auburndale and unincorporated Polk County. The two cities and the county have signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on promoting the idea of the Innovation District.
But most of the land in the conceptual area is privately owned, and the owners see the prospect of selling their parcels to developers seeking to continue the spread of distribution centers near I-4 in Polk County.
Williams Acquisition Holding Company, based in Oklahoma, owns roughly 4,500 acres stretching from just west of the Florida Poly campus all the way to State Road 33. The land has long been for sale and is being brokered by JLL, an international real estate company with an office in Tampa.
During the trustees meeting, Avent said he had recently heard that Williams was nearing completion of a sale for a parcel on which a developer planned to build a 1.5 million-square-foot distribution center.
“We had a session with the new real estate person at Williams last week,” Avent told trustees. “He said they’re committed to do this and have a contract for it. There are some things that still could happen that would prevent it, but it looks like very much it’s bound to happen and it would be between where we want information and engineering and health technology (sections).”
John Dunphy, JLL’s vice president in the Tampa office, said Thursday he couldn’t comment on any pending sale.
The Lakeland City Commission voted in October to approve the Williams Company’s application to change the land-use designation on 2,480 acres, a parcel extending from I-4 west of Florida Poly to the Polk Parkway south of campus, from Development of Regional Impact to Planned Unit Development.
That designation allows development of the property for light industrial use.
Meanwhile, a proposal has been submitted to Polk County’s Office of Planning and Development for a 1.28 million-square-foot distribution center south of Pace Road and east of the Polk Parkway. The Polk County Planning Commission is scheduled to review the request on Feb. 5.
The county’s planning staff has not yet issued a recommendation. Because of its size, the project would require approval from the Polk County Commission.
Kimley-Horn, a planning and design company with a Lakeland office, submitted the proposal. County records list the developer as Blue Steel Development, a Lakeland company headed by Howard Bayless, president of Marcobay Construction.
Bayless could not be reached Friday. Tim Campbell, the lawyer who submitted a pre-application for a comprehensive plan amendment on behalf of Blue Steel, said he couldn’t comment on whether Blue Steel is still involved with the project.
Last January, the Polk County Commission voted 4-1 to reject a proposal for a 1.4 million-square-foot warehouse complex in the same area. Avent joined Auburndale officials, including Mayor Tim Pospichal and Lakeland City Commissioner Stephanie Madden in arguing against the project, saying it would jeopardize the concept of a research park surrounding Florida Poly.
The property, owned by Henderson Pace LLC of Lake Wales, is already zoned for business park activity. At the recent trustees meeting, Avent said it seemed less likely the County Commission would vote again to deny another application for a distribution center.
“I’ve kind of always said, ‘Well, you know what, if Williams doesn’t sell, we’ll go south along SunTrax, and if south along SunTrax puts a warehouse in, we’ll just go west on Williams’,” Avent said. “Now we’ve got (potential) warehouses in both places.”
Auburndale leaders have not yet taken a position on the new Pace Road proposal.
“I think our concerns are still the same, though — the scale of the project, the impact it would have on the Innovation District and the trend,” Palmer said.
Palmer said Auburndale is not opposed to distribution centers in general. In fact, the City Commission in 2018 approved a 1.1 million-square-foot project along C. Fred Jones Boulevard opposed by many residents. Amazon has been announced as the tenant for the distribution center now under construction.
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Auburndale, Lakeland and Polk County have approved several other giant warehouses near Interstate 4 in recent years.
“Nobody in Polk County is anti-distribution center,” Palmer said. “We just don’t feel like the Innovation District is the correct place for them.”
Mallott echoed that idea. He noted that the CFID encompasses only about 3,000 acres in a county of 2,000 square miles.
“The highest value for the university is going to be adjacent, and the further away they are the harder it is to be able to capture that impact to the area,” Mallott said. “And so in some ways we just want it all. We want those logistics companies to pick Polk County, but we also want these other companies to pick Polk County, too.”
Mallott said the CFDC is actively working to recruit technology companies that would fit well in the Innovation District. The organization has also commissioned James Farrell, an associate professor of finance and economics at Florida Southern College, to produce an analysis of the economic impact of the district.
AdventHealth last year bought three contiguous tracts totaling 104 acres between University Boulevard and I-4, to the west of campus and inside what is now designated as the health technology section of the Innovation District. AdventHealth officials said they planned to build a free-standing emergency room.
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Construction was expected to begin in early 2019 but hasn’t yet started.
Florida Poly’s campus covers 171 acres of land donated by the Williams Company. The university also owns an unconnected, rectangular plot of about 360 acres to the southwest, but that is a reclaimed phosphate mine and might not be suitable for development.
In his address to the trustees, Avent discussed the possibility of seeking “P3s,” or public-private partnerships, to develop sites on campus. He said companies would cover the cost of construction and allow Florida Poly to “co-locate” in the buildings.
Avent said the difficulty in securing capital funding from the state makes public-private partnerships a better alternative.
Mallott said he remains hopeful that the Innovation District will arise.
“We’d like to think the companies that are coming into the area would want to utilize the skill set and strengths and talent that is being developed in Polk County through Florida Poly and Southeastern (University) and SunTrax, all these groups,” he said, “but again, there’s just a lot of unknowns.”
Gary White can be reached at gary.whit[email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.