Scanning an empty parking lot next to downtown Lakeland, Jeffrey Donalson sees nothing but potential and lays out his vision for what he believes is a much-needed addition to Lakeland.
Being a project manager wasn’t Donalson’s original aspiration when he graduated from the University of Florida in 2010 with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in engineering, but it got him to where he is today.
He worked in the engineering field for three years on many large-scale projects, including the Northwest Polk County Wastewater Plant. His last big project was a reverse osmosis conveyance plant for Domestic Water in Clearwater.
“I hung up the cleats and came over to work for myself,” Donalson said. “So, it’s been an interesting ride. I think my bread and butter foundation is the engineering part of it.”
In 2012, Donalson started working out of his own office in downtown Winter Haven shortly after the Great Recession hit.
There wasn’t much demand for engineering work in the area at the time, which caused Donalson to seek out a new path. It ultimately led him to network with city officials who helped him slowly establish his business in project development, which today is Thomas Capital Partners, LLC.
“I hung up the cleats and came over to work for myself…it’s been an interesting ride. I think my bread and butter foundation is the engineering part of it.”
With these connections, Donalson started to write and design proposals for new construction projects. He saw a lot of opportunities to purchase real estate and develop it, but opening and running a real estate business took a lot of work, which forced him to rely on some of the skills he had learned as an engineer.
“It was a unique process,” Donalson said. “One thing as an engineer that I like to do is to measure everything out and eliminate any impossibilities, any issues that may come up.”
When Donalson still made a living off of his engineering work, he spent his free time learning all about financial accounting, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. He needed to build up his financial IQ to enter the real estate business, which can involve high risk.
With a list of potential clients in hand, he would knock on the doors of local business owners looking for properties to expand their businesses. At first, he received mixed responses, but leading some small expansion started to domino into more significant projects.
He bought Thomas Capital’s first building, a conventional mixed-retail space of around 13,000 square feet.
Today, Donalson’s development company manages 500,000 – 600,000 square feet in Polk County, including various buildings for commercial use.
Thomas Capital specializes in larger offices, retail and mixed-use buildings in downtown settings. Many businesses have relied on Donalson’s company to develop facilities for their establishments in Lakeland, as well as other parts of Polk County.
For example, when businessman Doug Law needed a space for his Jimmy John’s establishment in downtown Lakeland across from Munn Park, he contacted Donalson to develop the property.
Other local businesses like Tsunami Sushi—originally based in Winter Haven—have approached Donalson regarding expansion efforts. Donalson helped them develop the Lakeland restaurant on N. Tennessee Ave.
Donalson’s latest major development involves a project on the property of The Ledger building on the edge of downtown. He partially owns the building with a partner holder.
In the parking lot area where the building is located, he plans on building 400-500 apartments over 17 acres of land, making the units densely packed while being true to Lakeland’s aesthetic. He says with certainty that he doesn’t want it to have an urban look that matches what has become common in downtown Tampa.
The project is in the concept design phase, and there is yet to be a concrete time when the apartments will open to residents. Donalson expects the project’s completion within two to three years. His company is treating it as a gateway into the west downtown area.
“We think we can maximize the use of the site through some vertical development, especially with what’s going on in downtown, and revitalize the west downtown gateway,” Donalson said. “Most development will be residential housing, but we will have retail and mixed-use components.”
Construction during the first phase will focus on the northeast corner.
“We’re trying to make not necessarily a town center but a livable community on the west side of downtown,” Donalson said. “We’re very bullish on Lakeland and downtown specifically. The metrics we’re using on-demand are that you have all of these businesses coming in.”
Donalson’s ascension as a respected leader in the project management space has coincided with explosive growth in downtown Lakeland. The city’s population is now at more than 120,000 people, signaling an increase of more than 20 percent in just a decade.