By: Steve Scruggs
The primary role of the Lakeland Economic Development Council (LEDC) is to create jobs, with an emphasis on high-skill, high-wage jobs and increase Lakeland’s tax base. But, if you asked me what I really wanted to accomplish over my last 33 years with the LEDC, it would be to create a city where our children would want to stay or come back to live and thrive in.
The presentation we gave to the City Commission on January 21st was about building off of the progress we have made in our community up to this point. It was about adding commercial air service to our airport, building a high line Downtown (Lakeland’s version of the one in New York City), building a new parking garage behind Lakeland Police Department that would help spur development on the vacant acreage near the police station, building more bike trails and walking paths, etc.
The goal behind this entire presentation was to create a conversation about potential solutions. We won’t be able to keep the wonderful parks, theaters, etc., that currently exist, much less add amenities if we don’t plan for our financial future. This economic boom is unprecedented, but it won’t last forever. The Lakeland Regional Health lease ($15 million a year) has an expiration date on it, Lakeland Electric is currently considering how it will replace its coal plant five years from now, etc.
Talking about funding sources and potential redevelopment projects at a City Commission meeting wasn’t anything new to us. We do this all the time. What’s new is that we are now sharing it with the community. For 30 years, these discussions were held among a very small group of people, and the ideas were then taken to the City Commission for a vote. You asked us to discontinue the “behind the scenes” conversations and we have for the past 4 years.
The LEDC is not just about big business. We created Catapult for entrepreneurs in 2014 and have a new state-of-the art facility which will be opening soon. We currently house 165 entrepreneurs and hope to have 300+ in the new facility. 99% of this money has been given by the private sector to help entrepreneurs in our community.
We also created YLakeland as a talent recruitment and retention initiative that has brought you the Summer Leadership Program (700 graduates 18-30 year old), Campus Ambassadors on our 5 university and college campuses recruiting those students to stay in Lakeland when they graduate, late night study spots at local coffee shops during finals week, and 75 internships for college students at Catapult and the LEDC. LEDC recruited LALToday to Lakeland which now has over 20,000 subscribers to their daily emails about current events in Lakeland (laltoday.6amcity.com).
The LEDC is constantly dreaming about Lakeland’s future. We are always brainstorming new ways to improve our community, to make it more attractive to the next generation. Not everything we try works, but failure doesn’t define who we are; it teaches us lessons that will help us make better decisions in the future.
If you don’t want Lakeland to change or continue to grow, then our agendas are different, and we can respectfully disagree. That is ok. We may also disagree on the type of growth we want. The LEDC would prefer to see development take place where our community already has existing infrastructure, more density will bring more amenities.
What type of amenities? The Joinery, Yard on Mass, Born & Bread, Concord Coffee, Black & Brew, Mitchell’s, Nineteen61, The Poor Porker, Publix GreenWise Market, Balance Culture, Catapult, Haus820, etc. (There are many, many more, please don’t be offended if you have been left out, these are just examples). These are the third spaces (in between home and work) our children want to experience.
Quality of life may be in the eye of the beholder, but I believe all Lakeland citizens can agree that we have a lot of it. Let’s celebrate how the arts greatly enrich the cultural life of our community while also providing valuable economic benefits. Let’s applaud the Parks & Recreation, Fire, Police, Lakeland Electric, City Hall, etc., employees that give their life every day to make ours better. Without them, there would be no us.
Everything we do tries to answer the question: how might we [collectively] create a city our children want to live in and experience? Does that City include a Cleveland Heights and a Community Theatre? OF COURSE, IT DOES! Lakeland must have these types of amenities to be competitive and successful. Lakeland’s Parks & Recreation Department is BEST IN CLASS. Our Parks & Recreation facilities and employees are second to none, including Brock Whitmyer, Bob Donahay, Pam Page and the rest of their team. We also believe Lakeland’s arts community is critical to our collective success.
“So, Steve, what is all this talk about Cleveland Heights, the Lake Mirror Center, the Fire Station and Lakeland Electric?” If you say that you don’t want any change, keep everything just like it is, then you can stop reading now, you won’t agree with anything I am about to say, and I respect that. Let’s respectfully agree to disagree.
But, if you truly believe that we really do care about creating a City our children want to live in and experience, read on. If we want to keep Cleveland Heights as the wonderful community asset it is, we can’t bury our heads in one of their sand traps. It needs help. It needs community support. “Save The Heights” has brought awareness, but it’s going to take more than a petition in the long run. Is it wise to continue to experience these types of losses when there are many other places in our City that could use those millions? (Citrus Connection, NW Lakeland, homeless, these are just a few examples).
The Lake Mirror Center buildings including The Community Theatre, in my opinion, have outlived their usefulness. Hear me, I am not saying the Community Theatre should go away or be kicked to the curb. If you like it the way it is, fine, leave it alone. Maybe it is “historic,” and we can’t redevelop it. Or like some have said, I had too many good memories in that building, leave it alone.
But, if I put my dreamer hat on, not my greedy developer hat, I could see a new community center there, possibly a new community theatre there, restaurants on the lake (maybe Texas Cattle would like to throw in and jointly develop the properties together), maybe residential units above the community center, maybe additional parking, etc.
I know the Lakeland Electric and Fire Station comments were controversial and I said they would be at the commission meeting. By saying it, I risked hurting all the wonderful people that serve in those buildings. If you are a City employee that works in one of those facilities, I am sorry if you felt threatened by my comments. Those comments were intended to be for very long-term planning purposes. Someday, those might not be the highest and best uses for those properties. We have built the Catapult Building on Lake Mirror with that in mind, we hope Catapult is successful in that facility for many years to come. If it isn’t, we have designed the building to be extremely flexible. It is building for the community and our community may have a different use for it someday. We planned for it.
So, I am sure there are some that will be cynical after they read this, cast the greedy developer motive on us, want to live in the past, want to keep things the way they are, or quote two sentences they heard me say during a 35 minute presentation and say “but you said _____.” There will be people 10 years from now that say, yes, the LEDC, those are the people that tried to sell Cleveland Heights to the greedy developers and bulldoze the Community Theatre. Say what you want, believe what you want, but that is not true and that is not “back pedaling”.
The recent social media blitz, inaccuracies stated as facts, misrepresentation of people’s motives and unfair accusations that transpired on these threads doesn’t speak well for having a community conversation on social media about the future of Lakeland. Ideas were presented, some felt threatened, therefore attacked, attacked the person with the idea, attacked how they proposed it, and assumed their motives are evil.
Calling each other liars and idiots on social media conversations about the future of our community needs to stop. If we continue to do that, there won’t be any more community conversations. Who wants to participate in that conversation? On the other hand, I have met with, and had great conversations with, 10-12 people in the last week regarding these issues and have made 7 or 8 new friends. What a blessing. If you have concerns, questions or comments about these issues or any others, please feel free to reach out to me.
If you didn’t know what our motives are, you do now, they are to create a City that our children will want to live in and experience. We may have different opinions about what that looks like, and if you don’t want change, yes, we will have a different opinion; if you don’t want sprawl or another strip center, we are on the same page.
I believe in Lakeland and I believe in our future, I believe in having community conversations about that future. I won’t be responding to hateful or accusatory social media threads moving forward, including any that are posted about this post or our motives. We can make better informed decisions by having community conversations. If you shoot and kill the messenger, you won’t get any more messages. Someone else will deliver the message but you won’t be part of the conversation. If we start conversations with “greedy developer, ignorant bureaucrat’s or Commissioners lining their pockets” we won’t get very far. Let’s start our conversation assuming we all want what is best for Lakeland. How might we work together to create a city that our children want to live in and experience?