With COVID-19, business closures, and unemployment, the last 15 months have been rough in Plant City. Zoom meetings and face masks have replaced face-to-face interactions and covered smiles. Much of the joy has been taken out of working with friends. The pace of business activity slowed.
But somehow in Plant City, vaccinations and stiff upper lips have helped us begin to turn the corner on a frustrating year of our lives. Good signs have included new construction all along Interstate 4 and County Line Road and hiring to support business growth. New businesses, like wine bars and bookstores, have had the courage to open in downtown in the midst of a weak economy. Restaurants are full and managers are ready to hire to serve those customers.
Warehousing and transportation construction for businesses like Wish Farms along I-4 and County Line Road have led the way. The large crane just to the north of I-4 seems to be pointing the way up. Led by maturing economic development organizations like the Plant City EDC and Main Street, our city commission and city manager have supported this growth with the new fire station on Park Road and a new community center. Repaving many miles of city streets has been a welcome improvement. In downtown, a visit to South Evers Street would reveal a collection of new, recently opened businesses and a plan to remake a branching alley as a focal point for the new hub.
Moving from the eastern apex of Baker and Reynolds streets several decades ago, the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce has moved on from the vision which propelled that move downtown and is seeking a new location which fits the organization’s needs for the next 30 years.
A key component of this growth has focused on our vital interstate highway exits. Those exits have sat for years, long planned as major linchpins of development, but they have come into the crosshairs because the city commission recently had to fight off a proposal for residential construction at the Park Road exit and keep the nearly 20-acre intersection for the commercial development for which it was always planned.
After cancelling its major annual fundraising event last year, our Noon Rotary Club bit the bullet and staged the annual Wild Game Cookout last month. Community members responded with robust attendance, which appears to have set records for the proceeds. Many needy Plant City non-profit organizations and individuals will benefit over the next 12 months because the club had the courage to hold the cookout while other clubs in the county were canceling their fundraisers.
Much of the impetus for these Plant City successes has come from an exciting cohort of emerging 30 and 40-something leaders. New community organizations like Aspire Plant City, a group that’s mission is “women empowering each other personally and professionally,” recently conducted a fun fundraiser with a Kentucky Derby-themed hat contest. A visitor to a Noon Rotary club meeting would see a diverse membership decades younger than its membership in 2000.
This new cohort of leaders is not merely young and diverse, but also good. Honing their skills as business creators and entrepreneurs, they are ready to assume the mantle of leadership in Plant City.
I was blessed to observe the last group of Plant City leaders. Having watched this new cohort for several years, I’m ready to entrust them to follow that crane and continue to push those signs up.
*Correction: An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly that Aspire Plant City was created by the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce and designed to provide growth opportunities for young women. Aspire was not created by the Chamber nor is it solely for young women as its membership ranges from women in their early twenties to retirees. It has been corrected above.