Fort Meade could be on the precipice of a huge economic upturn, but only if it can overcome challenges like changing community attitudes and improving communication among key stakeholders.
Those were two of the conclusions reached Saturday at Mosaic’s Streamsong resort, which hosted an economic summit deigned to identify the strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities that Fort Meade must consider as it moves forward.
About three dozen people attended, including city staff and elected officials, county and regional development leaders, and a number of local business owners and leaders.
Clayton Frazier, owner of Fort Meade’s Badcock Home Furniture and More, said the city can only grow if those in the room take the initiative to lead the attitude change.
“A lot of people still believe we don’t want to grow. A lot of people still believe we want to keep it the same,” he said. “The greatest thing we have as an opportunity is us. We’re it. We are the opportunity. What happens in Fort Meade, it rests on our shoulders. It’s us. Ten years from now, 20 years from now, whatever this community becomes, our kids and our grandkids will say, ‘our parents and our families had a big part in it.’ That’s what we think is really important, it’s us.”
The event came out of the city’s deal with Florida Public Utilities last year, when FPU purchased Fort Meade’s municipal gas utility for $820,000. An additional $100,000 was included in the deal, specifically for economic development initiatives — $20,000 a year for the next five years.
Paul Senft, president of the Haines City Economic Development Council, was the meeting facilitator.
“Economic development can be a community rallying point. Everyone wants the same, jobs for their families, jobs for their kids, revenue to improve the community, all of those positives,” Senft noted. “You’ve got to have involved citizens who participate.”
Fort Meade Chamber of Commerce President Vera Cannon said commitment and follow-through will also be key.
“A threat is when we lose our passion for what we want and what we are trying to achieve. When we lose that passion, we don’t go forward, we don’t do anything,” she said.
Frazier echoed those sentiments.
“Staying in the same place is really going backwards,” he said. “A lot of times, fear of change is a big problem for us. Success is not determined by how much money you make, the house you live in, the car you drive. Success is determined by passion for whatever you are doing. Passion brings excitement, and that’s what we need in our community to become the place that we should be and go to where we need to go. Everybody wants change, to go places and be things that they’re not, but a lot of time, we want to do that, but we want everybody else to do it for us. If you want to see what this community can become, you need to get on the train. Every one of us can be a voice for this community wherever we go.”
Among the strengths identified by the group Saturday were lots of available land, rail and highway access, and ready supplies of natural gas. Top opportunities were seen in the potential expansion of the Outdoor Recreation Area on U.S. 98, attracting new industrial operations like U.S. EcoGen, and improving communications.
Chief threats included competition from larger, neighboring cities, staying in a comfort zone, and lack of revenue to invest in local projects. Weaknesses included lack of jobs, community involvement and lack of affordable housing.
Senft said there are a number of things to consider when moving forward.
“Economic Development should be fun, because if you like where you’re living, you ought to be proud of it, and brag about it,” he said. “Who best to sell Fort Meade than you? That’s what we need to talk about and put together. You don’t need a big budget, you need committed people. That’s where I hope we end up today. Change is inevitable. It’s going to happen, The best thing you can do is plan for it, get out on top of it, make it come out the way you want it to.”
Although no date was established, many in the group indicated that they planned to meet at least quarterly to make sure that some of the positive ideas started to come to move toward fruition.
Senft warned that often change comes slowly, but that it is worth the effort and wait.
He pointed to the recently opened Miracle Toyota on U.S. Highway 27 in Haines City, saying that project was first in the works eight years ago.
“It took that long for everything to come together and fall into place. We’re in it for the long haul, you just have to keep your finger on the pulse and keep working. The long-term commitment, I can’t overemphasize enough,” Senft said.
He also indicate that the fact the city has a full-time planner, April Brown, is a major plus too.
“You’ve got a planning department that looks for a way to say yes,” he said.
Aleida Socarras, Sales and Marketing Director for FPU, said Fort Meade had much to offer, and had similarities with her company.
“We’re small, but we think big and try to do the right thing,” she said. “In that way, we can relate to Fort Meade. You need to think big, you need to dream, and you need to do the things that need to be done to move your city in your right direction. It’s wonderful to be here today to see the beginning of that, and I hope that it takes off.”