I’ve been asked a few times, “What can Plant City do to move our downtown towards being more like Lakeland’s?” Since I grew up in Lakeland and was witness to its decline, stagnation and eventual revival, and since I have been in our business offices in downtown Plant City since 1986, I felt I should spend some serious time reflecting on that very question. I think I have a list of action items that might be pivotal keys to achieving the goal.
First, we need our downtown to more than double in size and rise from one to two stories to well over three, with more than a few over five. With our downtown being roughly 33 blocks and mostly one to two-story buildings (Midtown affects approximately another 13 blocks), compared to Lakeland’s approximately 100 blocks with many buildings over four stories that have residential components, the importance of making this change cannot be overstated.
Second, Plant City needs to be a city five times larger in population than our county seat municipality (Lakeland/Bartow vs Plant City/Tampa). This change could, when giant swaths of money are in political or corporate negotiations, help our downtown get more crumbs falling from those tables and raise our place in county-wide prioritization. If Plant City can achieve this, things like Historic Downtown park expansions or large urban infill projects can be bargained for from a five-to-one political voter strength position.
Third, we should get an industry-changing, industry-leading Fortune 100 company like Publix to have been founded here 70-plus years ago with an almost Walt Disney-esque founder who will raise his children here and instill in them a lifelong passion of philanthropy and industrious support for nearly every endeavor. All of Plant City would benefit from this: such a change for Plant City would likely save our golf club community’s struggles and should greatly improve our political clout when dealing with our small county seat.
Fourth, we need Amtrak to stop in our town and/or future commuter rails to do likewise, and not pass us by on their way to stops in downtowns on either side of us.
Fifth, Plant City should have at least one high-end hotel overlooking our downtown freshwater lake, with gourmet chef dining, a dress code that actually functions and corporate suites on the upper floors (item no. 3 should be a big help here).
Sixth, Plant City should take great effort not to relocate our police force headquarters from its downtown central presence and move it four and a half miles and one train delay away.
Lastly, we need an undergraduate college enrollment population approaching 12,000 with over 2,500 of those young students residing only 17 blocks away from downtown. It helps if 11 of those blocks could meander along a beautiful freshwater lake filled with lovely swans. And surely it would be a boost also to have another 7,000 university students just a mile and a half away all searching for an evening out at least once a week.
Now, in all seriousness, many things can and will be done in the coming years to bring continued positive change in our lovely and authentic Historic Downtown district. Previously unused second-floor spaces have seen conversion into residences, with hopefully more to come. Urban infill is afoot with Midtown and the already accomplished removal of blight by that effort was hugely needed and greatly appreciated. Our police force is excellent, though I still hope one day perhaps to see a substation in our downtown. And despite rumors to the contrary, our downtown is approximately 85% occupied with most vacancies caused not by lack of demand, but usually other anomalies.
And I hope to see our city’s newspaper back in downtown someday.