In the shadow of some of the world’s most popular attractions, Lem Carnes and Reggie Baxter want to create a new destination site in Polk County. The new development signals a revival of large-scale projects in Polk following a long downturn after the 2008 Great Recession, experts told The Ledger. Northeast Polk is leading that revival.
DAVENPORT — In the shadow of some of the world’s most popular attractions, Lem Carnes and Reggie Baxter want to create a new destination site in Polk County.
“This could be some kind of destination site,” said Carnes, the vice president of his family’s business, Standard Sand & Silica Co. in Davenport, which owns the 4,100-acre site near the Posner Park shopping center. “This is the biggest piece of undeveloped land under single ownership close to the Orlando resorts.”
The new development signals a revival of large-scale projects in Polk following a long downturn after the 2008 Great Recession, experts told The Ledger. Northeast Polk is leading that revival.
“Northeast Polk, with its proximity to Orlando, is probably more than anything driving this development,” said Jim Farrell, assistant professor of finance and economics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, who tracks the local economy. “We’re finally getting to the point where the banks are looking for a better return on their money, but they’re looking for well-capitalized investments.”
A development run by a company like Standard Sand, started by the Carnes family in 1945, represents the type of well capitalized development that would attract bank loans, he added.
The Standard Sand property is already zoned for multiple land uses, including residential, commercial, resort and industrial developments.
Among the candidates that would transform the property into a destination site would be a medical/research facility similar to the Lake Nona Science and Technology Park, also known as “Medical City,” in Orlando, Carnes said. The site is also ready for some kind of theme park, perhaps an extension of one of the Orlando parks, or sports facility.
Carnes said he is talking to an organization interested in building a facility for “high-end auto racing” on the site. He declined to elaborate.
A recreational or research facility would drive other residential and commercial development on the site, said Baxter, director of real estate development at Standard Sand who is heading the development effort.
Prospects for industrial development could include companies like Amazon and FedEx, which recently built major distribution centers in Polk, Carnes said.
“This will attract a mix of everything over the next two decades,” said Baxter, a Polk native involved in residential and commercial development for 19 years. “This is the most sought-after area in Central Florida.”
Standard Sand plans to begin the first phase of development next year with single-family homes on 129 acres at Ernie Caldwell Boulevard and Pinetree Trail, Baxter said. Several hundred homes will be built there.
It has already begun clearing 300 acres for the second residential phase of development.
John Bohde, director of Polk County’s Land Development Division, agreed the Standard Sand development represents a revival of larger-scale developments to the county after the severe 2008 downturn.
“We weren’t seeing the 100-to-150-lot developments” after the downturn, he said. “We’re seing now multi-family properties again. Definitely things have picked back up.”
The Standard Sand development represents another example of a project stalled by the 2008 recession.
The Carnes family purchased the property in the 1940s, Carnes said. His father, Lemuel “Baylis” Carnes, had the property rezoned 10 years ago in anticipation of developing it.
Standard Sand had a contract with a developer, but it fell through with the downturn, he said.
Northeast Polk has become the locus for much of the new development, Bohde said.
The Polk County Commission has already approved further expansion of the Ridgewood Lakes development, also stalled during the recession, by Walton Acquisitions FL LLC of Scottsdale, Ariz., he said. Plans call for building 5,971 residential units and 381,388 square feet of commercial space on a site next to the Standard Sand development through 2040.
European investors purchased property from the Posner Park developers in February for a planned townhouse complex, Posner Estates, also sidelined during the recession. It will begin construction this year and eventually build 176 townhouses selling for $250,000 each.
Bohde said developers have told him bank financing has become more available since the downturn. Baxter and Carnes agreed that’s a prime reason fueling the Polk development revival.
“Banks are loosening up the purse strings,” Baxter said. “But they’re very cautious now. You have to show them proof of income to support what you want to do.”
The other major factor fueling the revival is the release of pent-up demand from consumers for new homes and businesses for new facilities, all agreed.
“It’s all a function of demand, and that’s what we’re seeing a lot in the real estate business, especially in a prime location like this. It’s being snatched up,” Carnes said.
Farrell agreed many homeowners have stayed in their existing homes longer that they wanted to, in large part because the recession wiped out the equity in their existing homes. That meant they would have had to take a loss in selling their existing home instead of the more normal practice of using a capital gain to help finance a new home.
“A lot of those homeowners have seen their equity return – if not fully, at least to positive equity,” he said. “One recession isn’t going to change our nature to move up. It’s still in our nature to grow and improve.”
Home and business owners have also recovered psychologically from the downturn, Farrell added.
“The collapse is eight years old. It’s drifted from memory,” he said. “There’s the willingness to take risk.”
Mike Hickman of Hickman Homes, a Lakeland homebuilder, agreed.
“We have a rising value market – rising valuation and demand,” he said. “That creates a good lending environment. It’s definitely better and makes more fiscal sense.”
Hickman added he also sees the Northeast Polk area challenging the county’s traditional growth areas in Lakeland and Winter Haven. That’s because the area is drawing people from Orlando and has more available land for construction.
Some demographic projections show Polk’s population increasing to 900,000 people by 2035, he said.
“That’s about a 50 percent increase in 20 years,” Hickman said. “They have to live somewhere.”