“What is economic development?” The Highlands County Economic Development office says, “What isn’t economic development?” The economic development team works to create and support a diverse economy that is conducive to prosperity for all its residents. It makes the most desirable opportunities for economic expansion, better employment and revenue growth.
Highlands County is located directly in the heart of Florida and encompasses the three cities of Sebring, Avon Park and Lake Placid. Sebring is known as the ‘City on the Circle, with a beautiful circular park that is the hub of everything in the city. Avon Park is the county’s oldest city and was founded in the 1800s by a man who came to study the wildlife of the Everglades. One of Lake Placid’s early settlers was Melvil Dewey who invented the Dewey Decimal System. He bought a significant amount of acreage in the area and, as the founder of the Lake Placid Club in New York, eventually convinced the state and town to change the name to Lake Placid.
The county was founded in the early 1920s and has become known as a center of the citrus industry. From an agricultural perspective, citrus, colourful caladium plants and cattle have always been a chief part of the economy and were originally the backbone of the community. The name ‘highlands’ is fitting for the area, as it is located along the Florida ridge, the highest area of the state. The ridge is a unique geological feature that runs about one hundred and fifty miles north to south and was once beachfront property in prehistoric times.
As it is located in inland Florida, there is no modern oceanfront here, yet there are many beaches on the numerous lakes that cover a surface area of over eleven thousand acres. Highlands County has one hundred and thirteen lakes, twenty-nine of which are located in the greater Lake Placid area.
Much of the business in the communities of Highlands County is related to healthcare. The Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center is the largest employer in the region, and the Highlands Regional Medical Center in Sebring also employs many residents. Lake Placid Healthcare Center, the Palms of Sebring and Royal Care of Avon Park are other major employers in the healthcare sector.
“There is an obvious trend towards healthcare in our community. It is one of our most important industries, which is consistent with the importance of the healthcare industry throughout the state,” says Taylor Benson, the economic development manager for Highlands County.
Highlands County has over one thousand businesses. Call center Agero in Sebring provides roadside assistance, and other large employers in the area include the Alan Jay Automotive Network, Costa Delray and Lykes Brothers, together employing approximately fifteen percent of the county’s workforce.
“We are fortunate in that, not only are these the largest organizations in our community, but they really care about our community and are actively engaged in giving back and contribute efforts to better the area on a regular basis,” says Taylor.
Many of the local businesses support students and the area school system. The community is focused on its youth and encourages hands-on parent and teacher relationships to enhance students’ experiences.
The Highlands County Economic Development office provides business expansion and retention, recruitment, economic research and trend analysis, marketing, site identification and preparation, community development for commercial and industrial growth, target industry analysis and strategic planning and development.
The leaders in the area are passionate about watching the community develop new businesses and business expansions. In fact, Highlands County has experienced significant development in the community recently.
CitraPac is an expanding food processing facility that manufactures a food product called Fruit Pearls by extracting the pulp from citrus fruit, freezing it and turning it into a fruit snack. The product is a fruit-based alternative to ice cream. Sugar Sand Distillery, LLC is under development in Lake Placid and will be Florida’s only estate-grown sugarcane distillery. Its fresh cane juice is distilled into various spirits including rum, vodka, moonshine and whiskey. “We are excited about Sugar Sand Distillery. It will include a tasting room, and it is a great example of agri-tourism in the community,” says Meghan DiGiacomo, business development manager.
Historical Harder Hall in Sebring has been vacant since the 1980s, and several developers have tried to refurbish the building. Recently, it was acquired by a development firm that has much experience in revitalizing historical buildings. The firm is working diligently to turn the building into an assisted-living residence with an independent-living component and a memory care facility. The economic development office is excited to see the beautiful structure used in a positive way for the community.
Another development that will increase the talent pipeline in Highlands County is South Florida State College’s recent launch of an advanced manufacturing program that includes a mechatronics program. The program is built around stackable certificates, and there is a direct-transfer option to Florida Polytechnic University and the University of South Florida.
The economic development office is continuously working to improve the infrastructure in the area. Highlands County is in the center of Florida, equidistant from Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach, which are some of the largest cities in Florida. The goal is to improve the connectivity between those metropolitan areas, by enabling fast passage through the county.
Eighty-six percent of the population in Florida is less than an hour and a half – one hundred and fifty miles – away from Highlands County, giving approximately seventeen million people access. “When you look at us from a distribution and warehouse perspective, we are in an ideal spot. We have Class 1 rail with CSX as well as shortline rail with South Central Florida Express,” says Taylor. The county has well-connected transportation routes with two airports: the Avon Park Executive Airport and the Sebring Regional Airport. The Sebring Regional Airport is unique in that it is home to a two thousand acre industrial park that has railway service to it and it is a Department of Commerce-certified Foreign Trade Zone. The Sebring Regional Airport is also the location of the world-renowned Sebring International Raceway that attracts visitors from all across the globe. Highlands County is also fortunate to have strong utility partners. The county is served by Duke Energy and Glades Electric Cooperative. “Both have proven to be essential components of our community’s development and they continue to invest in our community’s growth,” Taylor added.
Highlands County has a significant amount of land and many outdoor recreational activities, making it an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. On average, it has two hundred and fifty days of sunshine a year, and the average temperature is eighty-three degrees Fahrenheit. Many tourists are drawn to the area by the lakes that offer a wide variety of water and boating activities and the sixteen golf courses in the county. It holds more than twenty community parks and has the Archbold Biological Station, a leading environmental research institute. The Avon Park Airforce Range has over eighty-two thousand acres of recreational land that is open to hunters, hikers and bird watchers.
The county has a dynamic arts community. It has programs of interest at the South Florida State College (SFSC) Theatre of Performing Arts and the SFSC Museum of Florida Art and Culture. The Highlands Art League and the Highlands Art Village encourage emerging and evolving artists to explore the arts positively. The Murals of Lake Placid is a remarkable artistic attraction that has established Lake Placid as the city of murals.
Lake Placid is also the caladium capital of the world. The caladium is a plant that is often known as elephant ear, heart of Jesus or angel wings, and eighty percent of the world’s caladium comes directly from Lake Placid.
Highlands County has been recognized as a great place to live and recently received accolades for this. It was named the second-best place to own a home in Florida by SmartAsset, and Sebring was named one of the best under-the-radar family destinations in the United States by VacationIdea.com. In 2013, Lake Placid won the coveted Reader’s Digest award for America’s Most Interesting Town.
There are a handful of sizeable events that bring a great deal of traffic through the community. In January, the year begins with the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo at the Sebring Airport and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts takes place the third weekend of March. The Heartland Triathlon attracts many visitors to the county in June as does Lake Placid’s caladium festival in July. The county is excited about a new event arriving this year in April. The Sebring Soda Festival is a festival for craft sodas that offers over two hundred flavors and will be the first of its kind in the area.
Highlands County puts a huge effort into its Christmas lights displays and decorations during the month of December. The Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park and Sebring in particular put up spectacular displays
This is a convenient and affordable place for business operations. “Site Selection Group performed a study on the Highlands County area and found that the overall operating costs for businesses were approximately ten to fifteen percent lower than the surrounding metropolitan areas. The lower cost of business here, in general, is a big asset for us,” says Meghan.
A compelling aspect of operating a business here is that there are no impact fees, which clearly saves on development costs and lowers the barrier to entry. Much of the surrounding areas have impact fees that can be quite costly. The cost of living is significantly lower than the state average as well, including lower property taxes.
The affordability of the area is just one part of the high quality of life in Highlands County. Its ideal location provides fast access to nearby metropolitan areas and amenities without the daily hassle that comes with city life such as traffic and congestion. “We are filled with that hometown charm and that dynamic culture that attracts so many people to us. Everything is calm and serene here,” says Taylor. For a smaller community, the county has a variety of cuisine options and is home to some iconic southern restaurants including Cowpoke’s Watering Hole, the Wild Turkey and Chicanes.
The Highlands County Economic office expects the county to continue to grow as the heart of Florida in the years to come. Its target industries are agriculture, healthcare, distribution and logistics, aviation, manufacturing and tourism. It is working to improve its infrastructure to better support the manufacturing and distribution industries, as well as increase the opportunities for aviation and the maintenance and repair operations at its airports.
“Our community has really beautiful character, and we know that we can maintain that character while still building a better community,” says Taylor.