Frostproof Bucks the Citrus Trend

Rural Florida community goes the extra mile to diversify its economy.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Nestled between two pristine lakes, Frostproof is sort of like a 21 st century Mayberry. While the three-square-mile Polk County town may only have a population of about 3,000 people, it is the hub of Florida's citrus industry and has the orange groves to prove it.

However, the same citrus industry that has seen the quaint town through decades of prosperity now threatens to jeopardize the livelihood of future generations as several key issues hinder market growth. Indeed, city officials are looking to reverse a trend that has seen the local taxable revenue decline by more than $16 million in recent years.

With a record crop of 252 million boxes of oranges expected in the 2003-2004 season, orange prices have declined, hurting growers. Add that to the low-carb diet trend that has caused orange juice sales to dip and a canker scare that threatened the very existence of the local industry and economic diversification becomes a high priority.

“We had a canker scare in the state of Florida,” said Stella Heath, assistant to the city manager and the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Frostproof. “We considered what would happen if we lost our citrus industry because basically more than 75 percent of our businesses are citrus-related.”

That's when the five-member city council, city manager and other key players started brainstorming and networking at economic development meetings throughout the state to determine how to achieve its diversification goal.

One of its advantages is location. Frostproof is positioned between Tampa and Orlando with quick access to U.S. 27, a major artery that runs north and south across the state and connects with Interstate 4, a main roadway connecting the east and west coasts of Central Florida.

Frostproof has an attractive quality of live, with quiet living and close proximity to tourist attractions like Disney World, Sea World, Busch Gardens and beaches on both coasts. Frostproof city limits are home to plenteous lakes and a state forest and numerous historical local attractions. But perhaps one of the most important attributes of the city in its efforts to diversify was available land.

It didn't take Frostproof officials long to decide to grow its tax base through industry. The City moved ahead to annex 215 acres of land strategically placed in the south end of the city limits and the first company to inspect the land was Lowe's Home Improvement.

The company was looking for a new site for its $13.3 million lumber distribution facility, which would serve about 150 Lowe's stores in the Southeast United States. It would be Frostproof's first major commercial development in years. But the small town had to jump through some infrastructure hoops to land the deal.

“Lowe's came to the middle of an orange grove with no rail, water or sewer,” Heath said. “Nothing was there but some beautiful orange blossoms and large Valencia oranges. They had to truly believe that we could pull it off in a very short time.”

Several state agencies banded together to help Frostproof make the deal fool proof with grants. Enterprise Florida, and the City of Frostproof Board of Commissioners worked with the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development (OTTED) to secure a $125,000 grant awarded by Florida Governor Jeb Bush in August 2003.

Governor Bush awarded the Rural Infrastructure Grant to help support engineering and construction of road improvements, a rail spur, and railroad crossing needed to locate the Lowe's facility.

“This distribution center will have an enormous impact on this small rural community,” Governor Bush said. “The City of Frostproof has worked very hard to attract new investment and job-creating opportunities.”

Florida's Small Cities Community Development Block Grant program also awarded Frostproof $700,000 to lay the water and sewage lines. Then the city had to raise another $500,000 to lay the rail lines.

And Progress Energy stuck by city officials all the way through the negotiation process, ensuring that the power lines were upgraded and easements were made available quickly. Heath describes it as a true team effort that is sure to pay dividends in future deals. But the deal did have a few hitches.

“The railroad had actually given up the previous railroad right of way to the property owners,” explained Heath. “So we had to go back and get the easements again, reissue the approval to put the rail back in the same area – and all in a very short time. The state helped us FastTrack the annexation of 60 acres of land for Lowe's in 30 days.”

The entire process took 18 months. The Lowe's 167,500 square foot facility opened in March 2004 and has created 35 jobs, along with a significant number of indirect jobs for cargo drivers and rail workers.

Heath said Lowe's decision to locate its distribution facility in Frostproof is in line with the company's strategy to choose rural communities close enough to transportation hubs to service its retail stores.

Lowe's spokesperson Jennifer Smith said the home improvement company was following store growth when it chose Frostproof. “Our distribution network and those centers, whether they are flatbed distribution centers or regional distribution centers, are placed geographically,” she said. “South Florida is quite a large market for us.”

Heath and other Frostproof city officials learned many a lesson during the Lowe's deal, most of them revolved around teamwork.

“Keeping lines of communication open is critical,” said Heath. “We had to make sure the property owners, the prospective client, and the county and state agencies were all on the same page so nothing fell through the cracks.”

Lowe's decision to locate in Frostproof appears to be a new beginning for the small town. Heath said 35 other companies have since visited the city.

“We are still looking at prospects to make sure that they are good for us and we are good for them,” she said. “We are rural Florida, we realize it's not for everyone. But if you come here we want you to be happy and stay here.”