Plant City EDC sparks economic development, new workforce opportunities for community

The Plant City Economic Development Corporation, a public-private partnership founded in 2015, strives to market Eastern Hillsborough County as a premier business destination along central Florida’s I-4 corridor. Through public and private investments, the PCEDC aggressively recruits new companies while facilitating expansions of local companies. The ultimate aim is to ensure Plant City grows in a smart and sustainable fashion while staying true to its culture and history.

Jake Austin, president of the Plant City EDC, answered questions about the organization’s efforts, including its work centering on what he calls the most important ingredient to retaining and recruiting companies: a skilled and available workforce. Since the Plant City EDC’s launch, Jake has helped announce 60 economic development projects that have generated 2,500 new jobs, $500 million in capital investment, and more than 10 million square feet of new industrial real estate.

What kinds of companies do you target for Plant City?

We have a broad strategy of targeting companies that offer higher-than-average wages for our local markets or have capital-intensive projects that contribute substantially to the tax base. Plant City has a proud blue collar workforce, so there are blue collar companies that look to tie into that available workforce here, such as in logistics, manufacturing and agribusiness. In addition, we also have a population demographic here that is more of the professional trade, so we target back-office and middle-office operations for larger firms and headquarters operations across the board. For example, Wish Farms is headquartered here, and their jobs span from workers on the farm to a huge office complex with all their sales folks, their accounts receivable, their accounts payable -- those headquarters functions are tied into that business as well. We have logistics companies, either third party logistics providers or less-than-truckload-type operations, that have truck drivers but also have accounts payable, accounting, accounts receivable, sales brokers. We really try to target the headquarters functions because you get a range of jobs and basically provide opportunities for everyone in the community.

How does the Plant EDC team with others on workforce issues?

We have focused on strengthening our partnerships to make sure that the available resources out there are properly leveraged in Plant City. Some of those partnerships include our regional “EDCs” at the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council and the Tampa Bay Partnership, who both have county-wide workforce development initiatives and programs that can be used for companies either already in Plant City or coming to Plant City. We’ve really strengthened our relationships with our county partners, and even some partners in the state through CareerSource Florida, which trickles down to CareerSource Tampa Bay, all which are locally and state-funded programs to help with workforce initiatives. We maintain close relationships with those organizations, and then we also work very closely with community leaders and business leaders here in Plant City. We keep the pulse of the major employers in town and maintain regular communications with them, so that we always understand their needs from a workforce standpoint.

Can you explain your organization’s unique work with high school students?

We saw all these resources that were available for your typical adult between the ages of 18 to 24 and then also for older adults to get them back into the workforce -- to get them off of unemployment and into the job market -- but there seemed to be a gap for that 16-to-18-year-old range. We felt there was a great opportunity to educate and inform people of that age, especially in Plant City. Over 90% of our local students graduate high school, but only a small percentage of those graduates go on to a traditional four-year college or university or even a two-year associate's program or trade school. In our mind, we had a huge opportunity to capture these young people newly entering the workforce with a limited skill set. So with local leaders and partners we all collectively decided to work to educate some of these students about what the opportunities are the day they leave high school, developing the Future Career Academy through a new nonprofit called Workforce Development Partners. That includes educating the students while they're at school, taking them on field trips to major employers, having them tour the facilities and meet the HR manager, the facilities manager and the top executives at that particular business. And then having a job fair for the high school students.

We have a big signing day for any of the high school students that are hired by our local employers. We make it a celebratory event where the mayor comes, and we treat it like a signing day for a football or basketball player going on to college. The students will don the hat of their new employer. The mayor’s there, the newspaper’s there. We want to make it a very meaningful thing when these folks move into the workforce. The most impressive piece of all of this has been the engagement and involvement from the smaller and larger employers here who want to give their time and money to make sure it’s a success and from the political leadership who are committed to it, too.

What do you hear from company representatives about Plant City and what makes it attractive to employers?

The first thing we hear is that the location is perfect. Either because they're distributing their products throughout the state or throughout the southeast, the fact that we’re centrally located is key. We’re located along a major interstate that connects to very fast-growing metro areas, and we’re within close proximity to major assets like the Port of Tampa Bay, Tampa International Airport, and Orlando International Airport -- and Lakeland has a growing airport, too. We also have a lot of universities and colleges nearby, so they benefit from recruiting talent that’s right here. We’re an hour from the beach, an hour from Disney World, no state income tax. There are a lot of benefits not only for the companies logistically but from a talent recruitment standpoint because people just want to be in Florida. Those are some of the things that we hear over and over again, and obviously we use that to our advantage.

What does the future hold for Plant City from an economic development perspective?

We are moving to become more of a destination for younger skilled talent. We are still an area a little outside the higher prices of the urban core. It's less expensive to live here versus Tampa or the areas surrounding the urban core. But we're just 25 minutes from Tampa, so if you want to start a young family, Plant City is a great option for folks who don't necessarily want to be in a high-rise condo or can't afford a quarter-acre lot close to downtown. We're just far enough away to where you can get your average three-bedroom, two-bath house in an affordable area with good schools and a short commute. Plant City locals always have felt we've had a good quality of life, but we're starting to come into our own and be more of a destination for a broader group of young talent. You're seeing interest in craft beer places and coffee shops and little boutiques with young entrepreneurs. It's an area with untapped potential, and it’s untapped potential with the benefit of proximity to really mature markets. We’re excited. And we’re very focused on bringing the right jobs here for everybody. We want to build a tax base from those jobs, generate rooftops and retail, and help create something a little different from what’s been the norm for Plant City.