Photography by Paris Scott
Winter Haven has seen immense growth over the past few years. Its thriving downtown, remarkable landscape, and business opportunities create a prime space for investors to engage. Bruce Lyon, president of the Winter Haven Economic Development Council, tells us about the journey and what the future might look like for our neighboring city.
Winter Haven is one of the fastest-growing communities in Florida. Its high growth rate stacks up to 4% per year: double the county average, and a national indicator of both economic and cultural success.
The pulse of the Winter Haven community is rooted in openness to new ideas, new approaches, and new structures; this is what pushes the city forward. Winter Haven is positioned for success in the 21st century with support and direction provided, in part, by a local nonprofit founded and supported by local businesses and the City of Winter Haven, the Winter Haven Economic Development Council (WHEDC).
Bruce Lyon, president of the WHEDC, assists the public and private sectors as they seek to grow a resilient, inclusive, and equitable economy in the area.
When the WHEDC was formed in 2011, much of our nation’s economic prosperity had just been damaged by the recession. In response, the organization set a goal to diversify Winter Haven economically, promote the city, and pick up the pieces by helping the community get back on track with growth and development.
A Lakeland native who returned to the area in 2000, Lyon gained much of his experience nationally by working with clients in over 20 states on issues of economic redevelopment and affordable housing. He’s familiar with how communities operate and what makes them thrive. When he stepped into his role at the WHEDC in late 2013, he brought those skills and many years of experience with him.
Since then, Lyon and a team of other city leaders have been working hard to align opportunities and secure new investments in Winter Haven. His vision is to ensure that Winter Haven is a welcoming and viable option for companies interested in investing in Central Florida.
Lyon recognizes Winter Haven’s recent growth: he’s seen it happen before, right here in Lakeland. Before joining the WHEDC, Lyon consulted on many local redevelopment projects. “I saw a lot of that major growth in Lakeland, particularly in the downtown area from 2000-2013, and it feels very similar to what’s going on in Winter Haven now,” he remarks. “The vision and the supportive community are the same, that wants to see small businesses succeed.”
“Winter Haven offers a terrific opportunity for local retailers to invest and build businesses.”
Small business owners indeed find Winter Haven to be a high-energy, profitable place to work. You won’t find many large malls or strip centers or national businesses in Winter Haven, and most everyone seems to be okay with that. “Winter Haven offers a terrific opportunity for local retailers to invest and build businesses,” says Lyon. For example, the city has only one Starbucks, but is home to several locally-owned cafes and a new downtown coffee roaster. “We’re growing quickly, and we have the attention of some national retailers, but not so much attention that it’s causing tremendous pressure on our local businesses.”
Along with its friendly, small-town vibe, Winter Haven’s landscape is unbeatable. With over a thousand homes on its chain of lakes, residents often take boat rides to bars and restaurants on the weekends. Of course, many people live in Winter Haven and commute to Orlando, Haines City, and Lakeland; for the most part, though, it maintains its own unique community.
An important shift Lyon has seen occur in Winter Haven, beyond its economic growth and business development, is the tone of the city. “The leadership here in Winter Haven has embraced the opportunity to move forward and grow. We set the tone in Winter Haven. We want you,” says Lyon. “If you are interested in being in Winter Haven, and you’re interested in investing your time here, or bringing your family, we want to talk with you about that.”
The WHEDC wants to ensure that investors have the tools they need when choosing Winter Haven and works closely with the city by conducting studies to move the initiatives of the area forward. In one particular study on hospitality that the WHEDC investigated in 2014, the organization discovered that the community had a major deficit in hotel rooms. Since that study, multiple new hospitality investments have occurred. The study and groundwork the WHEDC laid has paid off: even in a pandemic, the new hotels are full.
The work Lyon does with the WHEDC allows downtown businesses to flourish. He mentions N+1 coffee and bike shop and Grove Roots Brewing as examples of the “halo effect” of business growth. “One investment could spur another investment and, you know, a third or fourth. That’s really important to the downtown and to the social character of the community; new business opportunities are constantly emerging, and the growth downtown, in our industrial areas and related to tourism is allowing that to happen,” says Lyon. Lakelanders have seen the halo effect occur in our own downtown and metro areas; now we see a similar magic taking place in our neighboring cities like Winter Haven.
In the next five years, Lyon and his team at the WHEDC are developing initiatives in five areas: growth, engagement, collaboration, guidance, and vision. Economic growth is a key area, and the WHEDC looks for new economic growth through a lens of diversity and equity. The organization recognizes the necessity of a vibrant job market, and desires to create access to good jobs that fit residents’ skills. “If one of our neighborhoods doesn’t have access to good jobs because we’re not working hard to bring them, that neighborhood will never move forward. It will always have hurdles in front of it,” Lyon says. “But if we bring jobs that create opportunities across the community geographically, demographically, then we create value and opportunity for everyone and that is what we want to do.”
Another distinct action item the WHEDC hopes to accomplish is to create new multifamily affordable housing and rental properties. With lots of new jobs — from rapid industrial growth at the Central Florida Intermodal Logistics Center in Winter Haven, the high-growth healthcare industry, strength in tourism related to sports and LEGOLAND, and new apartments and affordable housing investments — the next five years look bright for Winter Haven.
Lyon won’t take much of the credit for Winter Haven’s recent developments. He notes City Manager Mike Herr, Chamber of Commerce’s Katie Worthington Decker, and Main Street’s Anita Strang as key players in Winter Haven that are instrumental to growing the community. Further, the investor members of the WHEDC and Winter Haven’s City Commissioners are key to adopting policies that are effective in promoting economic growth while also providing the financial support to the WHEDC that enables the economic development work to occur. In addition, institutions like Polk State College, Winter Haven Hospital, Florida Can Manufacturing and smaller businesses around town are key investors in the community. “It’s a huge team effort, and we work together really, really well,” says Lyon. “We have the same vision: to move forward and to help build our community with new investment, new jobs and fresh opportunities.”
WINTER HAVEN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT COUNCIL
150 Third Street SW, Suite 206
Winter Haven, FL 33880