Polk County Commission to vote Tuesday on $2.5 million business incubator request

·4 min read

A newly-formed nonprofit that’s trying to bring business incubators to four cities and an airport in Polk County is continuing its campaign to cobble together public funding to make the ambitious $40 million project a reality.

On Tuesday, the county commission will vote on whether to allocate $2.5 million from the county’s general budget toward the effort.

Marshall Goodman points to land in downtown Lake Wales where a future business incubator could go. He's leading an effort to bring similar programs to Haines City, Auburndale and Winter Haven.
Marshall Goodman points to land in downtown Lake Wales where a future business incubator could go. He's leading an effort to bring similar programs to Haines City, Auburndale and Winter Haven.

Unless the majority of commissioners had a change of heart over the weekend, it’s unlikely to pass.

Read the initial story about the concept: Who will pay for a $40 million plan to bring business incubators to four Polk cities?

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At an agenda review meeting Friday, they voiced concerns — not with the incubator concept itself, but with the proposed funding arrangement.

Three cities — Haines City, Lake Wales and Auburndale — have already agreed to contribute $300,000 a year over the next three years for the incubator operation. Each city will pull the money from its CRA (Community Redevelopment Area) funds.

But the county already pays into these community redevelopment areas, which are intended to address blight. In the past fiscal year, the county has put in $22 million to a total of 22 CRAs.

The majority of county commissioners stressed this point Friday: If the cities are using CRA money to help pay for the incubators, the county is already paying its share and doesn’t need to take anything else out of its budget.

Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey. [PIERRE DUCHARME/THE LEDGER]
Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey. [PIERRE DUCHARME/THE LEDGER]

“We are paying our share out of the CRA,” Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey said. “We don’t want to pay for this twice.”

Commissioner Neil Combee agreed.

“By golly, we’ve given you (the cities) lots of money (through the CRA). Use it for an incubator,” he said.

Combee added that a vote against the request shouldn't be viewed as a vote against the plan.

Polk County Commissioner Neil Combee
Polk County Commissioner Neil Combee

Combee's message to cities: “Take the CRA money and build all the incubators you want."

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A county vote against the additional $2.5 million budget allocation won’t crush the incubator dream, said Marshall Goodman, who’s leading the fundraising charge with the nonprofit he started last May.

“We are still progressing,” Goodman said. “It is a $40 million project. We know we aren’t going to get there in a year. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

The county has already given the effort a boost. In November, the commission voted to award $600,000 in federal COVID relief funding to the incubator plan.

Goodman, CEO of the Lake Wales based nonprofit Central Florida Incubator, LLC, has requested $4 million from the state and plans to apply for federal grant funding. He’s also awaiting a funding commitment from the city of Winter Haven for an incubator there.

Business incubators are designed to help entrepreneurs with their business start-ups and 43 of them can be found in Orange, Osceola and Hillsborough Counties. Polk has only one, the privately-funded Catapult in downtown Lakeland.

Lakeland’s incubator, launched in 2014, has resulted in more than 150 start-up businesses, according to its website.

Goodman aims to bring a multi-story, 20,000 square foot incubator to Lake Wales, Haines City, Auburndale and Winter Haven that would combine co-working space, a large culinary kitchen, classrooms, conference rooms, and residential studios on the second floor, according to the proposal.

Lakeland Linder International Airport would also get an incubator focused on aviation and aerospace. If the vision comes to fruition, they’d all operate under the same program called “Game Changer.”

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“The incubator would assist start-up companies and individual entrepreneurs to develop their business by providing a range of services including office space, management training and venture capital,” the proposal reads.

The four cities are being asked to secure property for the incubator and provide funding for operating costs and staffing. Goodman said the city of Lake Wales has already pinpointed land downtown where they want it to go.

The county was originally asked to provide $4 million to each city to cover the cost of construction, but commissioners balked at that initial $16 million request when it was first presented in October.

That’s why the ask was ultimately reduced to the $2.5 million request that appears on the agenda for Tuesday’s commission meeting.

Goodman told the Ledger Monday that he understands commissioners’ concerns with the funding arrangement, calling it “a fair argument.”

He said he would be in contact with the cities to see if they’d be willing to contribute more CRA money to the cause.

“I think everyone realizes that business incubation is critical to the reinvention of our cities, especially rural and small cities,” Goodman said. "Everyone has been favorable about the concept."

A South Carolina native, Dustin covers Polk County government and county-wide issues. He can be reached at dwyatt@gannett.com or on Twitter @LLDustin_Wyatt.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk County Commission to decide on role in business incubator plan

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