The Blueprint for a Better Future

How One Gregarious Developer’s Journey to Bring Lifestyle Living Options to Lakeland Illustrates the Complexities and Hopefulness of Growth


By RJ Walters
Photography by Jordan Randall

Trying to define “smart” growth locally or correctly guessing what the next three to five years is going to look like in the country’s fastest growing county is a lot like trying to predict what might happen if a couple of Lakeland icons invited an established developer of urban high-rises from Brooklyn, New York to a languishing industrial city to talk shop and build bridges—metaphorically, of course.

Yet earlier this year, Mayor Bill Mutz and Steve Scruggs, President of the Lakeland Economic Development Council (LEDC), could be found navigating 15-passenger vans through Pittsburgh with more than 20 individuals from many walks of business and from different backgrounds who are tied together by an ardent devotion to seeing Lakeland flourish exponentially, while staying true to its roots.

One of the attendees on the LEDC-hosted City Visit tour to the Steel City was 37-year-old Shlomo Sinay, a devout Hasidic Jew and principled businessman who owns Murex Enterprises, alongside his brother David—and someone who has vivid dreams of redefining the multi-family home market in Lakeland even though he had never stepped foot in the Swan City until 2021.

Maybe what growth is going to eventually look like is impossible to say with perfect clarity, but the journey of Sinay and the opening of the Welcome Canary complex earlier this year offers us glimpses of the beauty and complexity of living in a city where more people are moving to than ever before.

The Sinay brothers, David (left) and Shlomo (right) have brought their years of real estate development experience in Brooklyn to Lakeland to offer people lifestyle living options in multi-family complexes.

Do You See What I See?

After nearly 20 years in real estate development—primarily rehabilitating old city dwellings and constructing high-rises in very defined spaces with inflexible regulations—Shlomo and David decided to take time during the uncertainty of the pandemic to conceive a strategy that would allow them to build something “with more purpose that could add something to humanity.”

So they traveled across the country, visiting Arizona, Texas and Ohio before landing in Tampa to come visit a city Shlomo didn’t really know what to expect from, but that he had talked about with Eran Yaniv, a key investor in his business. Some parts of Lakeland are more naturally appealing and attractive for aesthetic and infrastructure reasons, plus some business advisors who Sinay trusts encouraged him to look at places like Plant City, Bartow or Polk City because there was more land, and potentially greater financial incentives for investors.

“But once I started going downtown, just talking to people and then going to Publix and seeing the lakes and starting to understand the culture, that’s when I called Eli Nachman and said, ‘You’ve got to come see it and see if you feel the same.’”

Data indicates many people do feel the same. Recent numbers provided to The Lakelander from Gary Ralston, managing director and partner for SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate, show more than 22 percent of U.S. population growth is happening in Florida, and more than 80 people are moving to Polk County every day.

Mayor Mutz says “we have to grow—there’s not an alternative,” and we have to seize the moment by finding creative and sustainable ways to grow wisely by: understanding fiscal restraints, understanding everybody’s roles in development, building good relationships and then matching those relationships with the right opportunities.

Sinay made the decision to seize the moment for his company, scooping up a handful of vacant properties to hopefully build a brand that becomes synonymous with creating communities focused on people’s overall well-being. He owns a plot of land about half the size of Welcome Canary just minutes from the new complex that could be prime for around 90 units, he has plans for a two-phase development of more than 400 units off Old Medulla Rd. in South Lakeland and he has property in North Lakeland as well.

We have to grow—there’s not an alternative.”

-Mayor Bill Mutz

Shlomo Sinay and Mayor Bill Mutz converse inside one of the homes at Welcome Canary. Sinay says he consulted with Mutz on some of the amenities that the complex would include, trusting Mutz knows Lakelanders well.

Allies Forge the Future

As Sinay was sizing up parcels to purchase in Lakeland and developing blueprints for creating outdoor sanctuaries within the context of multi-family apartment complexes, he was also being observed closely, as are any new developers to the area.

Valerie Ferrell, Lakeland CRA Manager for the city of Lakeland—whose primary job is to work with businesses, developers and property managers in Dixieland, Downtown and Midtown to improve residents quality of life—puts it this way: “It’s really about finding the right partners that want to achieve the same goals as we do, and they want to bring…those missing destinations or missing components that we might not have yet in Lakeland,” she says. “It’s really about finding ways to make a welcoming city, not just for the people moving here, but for the partners we seek to find investment here. It’s really all a balancing act.”

Sinay readily admits he takes a “New York state of mind” with him everywhere he goes, and every “No” he hears gets re-translated in his mind as “Try harder” or “Try something different.”

Early on he fell in love with the swans and the palm trees, but once he was able to meet with local leadership about the possibility of constructing his dream, he was captivated for a different reason.

Sitting at the table with key players in the development of the city he was able to detect a constant resolve to develop the city in a way that is sustainable and smart for as many people as possible.

“They would say, ‘You can have the growth process we envision, but not necessarily the growth you are talking about the way you see it,’” he says. “They would say that it’s important to listen to people, but don’t make decisions out of emotions…we have a comprehensive plan to help with that.”

On the recent trip to Pittsburgh, Sinay was impressed to see how Lakeland City Manager Shawn Sherrouse has a crystal clear understanding of the challenges Lakeland faces and has plans to attack them winsomely.

“You can tell he knows what the answers are, and is trying to find a middle way that makes sense for everyone in Lakeland. That was very impressive,” he says.

Mayor Mutz smiles wide when asked about Sinay, acknowledging the two have developed a strong friendship as they have navigated the challenges and opportunities of developing more housing for Lakelanders.

“What I loved about Shlomo, beyond just good planning, is his heart—you knew he was looking to match with a city in a location that would understand him well, and he found it here,” Mutz says. “I would tell you the relationship that Shlomo, Steve Scruggs and I had really was formative…in giving him confidence in Lakeland that then allowed him to overlook other larger cities where he could do this.”

Another aspect of Lakeland that made Shlomo feel right at home was discovering the Chabad Jewish Center of Lakeland, a local branch of a global movement dedicated to providing services and community to Jewish people around the world.

Sinay wears customary Hasidic Jewish apparel, prays at three appointed times each day and seems unafraid of failure, as he often says, “If it is meant to be, it will be.”

One challenge he encountered early on in the process of committing to developing in Lakeland was finding Kosher food. He would have to travel to Tampa or Orlando regularly and his schedule would often be confined by those limited options.

All that changed when Sinay was connected with Rabbi Moshe Lazaros and Libby Lazaros, the couple who direct the Chabad Jewish Center of Lakeland.

Libby prepares Kosher meals for Shlomo nearly every time he visits, and the couple has invited him into their home on numerous occasions. The Lazaros also hail from Brooklyn, and their organization provides everything from Hebrew school to synagogue services to holiday celebrations and more.

“When I met them and learned I could get Kosher food right here in Lakeland, it made my experience so much more whole,” Sinay says.

Welcome Canary

Lakeland’s Newest Innovative Lifestyle Living Community

1030 Browning Rd, Lakeland, FL 33811

The homes are the frame of the canvas, and the amenities are the painting.”

– Shlomo Sinay on Welcome Canary


Some Pipe Dreams Are Just That

Even well thought out, expertly planned growth and development is uneven, at best. You’re dealing with aging infrastructure, pieces of property with different zoning restrictions and dreams and blueprints that sometimes don’t jive seamlessly with stated land uses. Simply put, the city can’t greenlight anything it so desires and developers can’t just take blank slates and create magic.

Just ask Shlomo.

He wanted to come in and build the largest complex and make the biggest splash possible. But he had to do so within the confines of what was available on the property of Welcome Canary, located just off of Old Tampa Highway. That’s where things like 100 year old sewage lines become important facets of conversations about our future.

“We have lines that are 100 years old….I’m 70 and I remember how long ago that was,” Mutz says with a chuckle, “So we now have [plans for] capacities we didn’t build for…and the challenges are wanting to make sure we don’t over promise and then under deliver.”

Upgrading the capacity of a large sewage line from archaic 6-inch piping to modern 8-or 10-inch piping can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Sinay had to adjust his expectations and work within the confines of building on land that is not in the core of the city, but Mutz said it is also a reminder of the importance of helping the community at-large understand the investments of time and money required to usher in the next wave of growth.

“The LEDC does the majority of the work on the frontend to really align future partners—and that is Yeoman’s work to do when you’re talking about potential employers, housing, the fact they are then advocates for what concessions the city could consider…” Mutz says. “And then it’s the city’s responsibility to deliver the goods…and this has to happen out of taxpayer funds.”

The process to go from dream to reality can be cumbersome, but Sinay likes what he sees from rubbing shoulders and being in meetings with other growth minded Lakelanders enough that he’s all in— working to set himself apart from other multi-unit home developers, and positioning himself alongside the decision makers to help them see the urgency of planning for changes that sometimes feel like they are coming fast and furious.

Sinay sings the praises of many city staffers who play integral roles in community development, including Brian Rewis (Director of Community and Economic Development), Teresa Maio (Assistant Director of Community Development), Chuck Barmby (Planning and Transportation Manager) and Matthew Lyons (Executive Planner for development review and zoning).

“They understand what Lakeland is all about and are there every step of the way to assist you,” he says.

February 22, 2024, David and Shlomo Sinay help Mayor Bill Mutz cut the ribbon at the grand opening celebration of Welcome Canary. Amy Wiggins, President/CEO of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and Steve Scruggs, President of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, joined in the festivities.

An Inside-Out Approach to New Communities

A few weeks after their hands-on master class on economic development in Pittsburgh, Sinay and Mayor Mutz are once again together, but this time away from the hustle and bustle of the city spending time with those more precious to them than any newfangled project.

Sinay and his 6-year old son, Mordechai—the youngest of Sinay and his wife Faiga’s five children—and Mutz and his 4-year-old granddaughter, Eisley, are fishing together off a bridge with the red-hot Florida sun bearing down on them. They are surrounded by nine acres of carefully crafted tranquility that makes up the 160-unit Welcome Canary complex that opened earlier this year.

“You should love being home. It should be a respite from stress, from everything else,” Sinay said, describing how they designed the complex to feel like a retreat when you come home at the end of a long day. Inside, residents enjoy amenities like a gym, wellness center, a zen den with infrared light therapy, and cozy community lounge areas. Outdoors features include a sculpted pool, running trail, hammocks, a community bonfire and vegetable garden, and docks on the pond.

The units all have private entrances and individual patios or balconies that look directly out onto all of the luxuries afforded to residents of this lifestyle living centered complex.

There are two and three bedroom units, and as Mutz says, Sinay “thought inside the box instead of outside the box” by essentially building the facility with an all encompassing court-yard style feel that draws people in and toward each other.

“The houses are the frame of the canvas,” Sinay says. “The amenities are the painting inside it.”

As the two successful entrepreneurs and dedicated family men cast a line with their young ones, the camaraderie is clear. Although Mutz and his family have made an indistinguishable impact on Lakeland for nearly three decades, and Sinay has only been a part-time Lakelander for several years, there is a beautiful synergy that goes far beyond what good planning and zoning meetings alone can accomplish.

“The first thing I want to do when I see Shlomo is give him a hug…just as part of our friendship and my appreciation for him,” Mutz says. “I love the representation of the fabric of who we are as a city that it represents the desire to be a community that appreciates a broad spectrum of values, honors, creeds, etc. and embraces them as equal partners in everything we do.”

And likewise, as Ferrell states, multi-family housing might not be for everybody, but neither is the often-touted “American dream” of single home ownership.

“Everyone has a different view of what [the American dream] looks like now and they may want urban apartment living or a condo or a townhome versus having a home with home insurance and a lawn to mow and all the responsibility of maintenance,” she says. “We have to offer more options…everything from affordable options for any income range to the higher end townhomes, condos, etc.”

A Blueprint Still Must Be Built

It’s easy to think of individuals and corporations invested in the growth of cities like Lakeland are more like power brokers, often with the clout, money and/or influence needed to drive change, but Lakeland isn’t just another geographical location, it is a place thousands of families and individuals proudly call home.

That’s why Mutz says we are part of what he considers an anomaly, a city where the types of people who were in one of the 15-passenger vans he was driving in Pittsburgh are all-in, shoulder-to-shoulder to do the hard work it takes to help our community grow efficiently and effectively.

“This is not a hierarchy city,” he says. “This is a public servant [kind of city] where people like us and organizations like the LEDC do the grinding work of getting done what needs to get done.”

Success is never guaranteed, and Sinay admits he would like to see some of the development-minded movers and shakers be a little more aggressive at times, but for now he’s just tickled to have his first of what he hopes are many housing project open and to be part of a city that not only does he respect, but that he appreciates welcoming him to be a part of.

“I’m trying to custom tailor a product that a Lakelander will love, and if they give it a chance, they will understand what this is,” he says. “We’re not developers coming in looking to change what Lakeland is, we’re just enhancing what it already has.”

Oftentimes it’s easy to forget to pause and celebrate an accomplishment like opening a multi-family housing complex more than 1,100 miles from home, in a city you hadn’t heard of three years prior. But Sinay’s oldest child, 17-year-old Surala, helped him fully appreciate the moment.

She flew down to Lakeland for an extravagant grand opening celebration on the grounds of Welcome Canary on February 22 that included high-end Kosher fare, live music, entertainment, victory cigars and more. She vividly remembers riding around the site on a tractor when it was nothing but piles of dirt, and now, her dad—who had told his kids the story of his first real estate venture, where he and his brother put in months of manual labor to flip a home back in the early 2000s—was the center of attention because of a innovative style of apartment living that he dreamed of and then went out and made happen.

“Right before I got there I texted my dad, and I was telling him I was proud of him and good luck with his talk, see you soon, I love you,” she recalls. “And he texted back, and it said, ‘I love you, too. Remember, you mean more to me than all you will see tonight.’”

Welcome Canary

Lakeland’s Newest Innovative Lifestyle Living Community

1030 Browning Rd, Lakeland, FL 33811