Top 10 Polk Storylines for 2012

I’m looking forward to 2012 as much as I have any year in my lifetime.

A lot of that has to do with some exciting things going on in my own life, but I’m also eagerly watching things happening around our community. This year is going to be incredibly important for the future of our region, and even though I know that can be said pretty much every year, it’s definitely true for 2012.

There were numerous important events in 2011, including Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to kill high speed rail, the USF Poly push for independence, the opening of Legoland, the FHSAA’s decision to keep state finals in Lakeland, and many more. As eventful as 2011 was, I want to look ahead.

So, here are my top 10 things to watch in 2012 in Polk County. Some issues are carry-overs from last year, but some are new. Here we go:

1. Redistricting –This is such a huge issue that there’s no way I can get into all the ramifications and dealings just in this post. It’s something I want to look at more closely as I have the time.

In short, with the completion of the 2010 census, every state is redrawing its districts for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, state congress, etc., etc. So every state is going through this process, not just Florida, and it’s typical for the party in power to try to create as many districts as possible that benefit them. Yes, politicians gerrymander. Big surprise, I know.

But Florida voters threw a wrench in the process when we passed two amendments to the state constitution in 2010. The constitution now includes the clause, “districts shall be as nearly equal in population as is practicable; districts shall be compact; and districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.”

The Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Pete Times) has been all over this issue, and they’ve put together some great interactive maps using the proposed district maps that the Florida House of Representatives has released. You can see them here.

Let’s just say it’s not looking that great for Polk County right now. We’re being carved up, which doesn’t seem to fit at all with the phrase “utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.” This thing is just getting started, and it will influence how Florida’s government is shaped for the next 10 years. It’s a big deal, and one that looks more and more like it will be settled in the courts.

For an even more comprehensive look at where things stand, read Bill Rufty’s story from The Ledger.

2. Jobs/Economy – It says a lot about my view of the importance of redistricting that I would put the economy No. 2 on this list. It’s pretty much at the top of every other similar list in any other part of the country.

It’s no secret that the recession hit our area harder than most, especially in the housing market. While housing still hasn’t recovered, it’s possible that the light at the end of the jobs tunnel might be getting closer for Polk County.

A recent survey that was reported by The Ledger found that the Lakeland-Winter Haven area had the best hiring outlook in the nation for the first part of 2012 (see the story here). And as other projects get going around the county (such as The Landings, USF Poly, etc.), there could be even more jobs available.

The economy won’t be a quick fix, but if the job market does heat up then that should loosen the housing market, increase tax revenues from property values, and hopefully create a positive cycle, which would be nice for a change. Let’s hope 2012 is the start of some of that good momentum.

3. 2012 Local Elections – Among the Polk posts up for vote this November are seats for U.S. Congress, state senator, state representative, County Commision, School Board, property appraiser, and supervisor of elections.

County Sheriff is also on the ballot, but forgive me if I don’t really see any way that Grady Judd will lose.

Local elections obviously make a big difference in the everyday lives of citizens, so this is going to be another big issue to watch. With two state senators being term-limited (and two big names in Paula Dockery and J.D. Alexander), those races in particular will be hotly-contested and help shape the county’s influence in Tallahassee.

The County Commission’s fight against term limits will be interesting, too. I think they are a no-brainer to have in place, especially since voters actually voted to implement them. But who am I to say that commissioners should do what voters tell them to in a democracy, right?

4. USF Poly/Higher Education – There was a lot of drama toward the end of 2011 surrounding USF Poly’s bid for independence. Even though the state Board of Governors quieted the storm for now by issuing benchmarks that the campus must reach, I don’t think the drama will die down much in 2012.

USF President Judy Genshaft’s decision to remove Poly Chancellor Marshall Goodman rubbed some BOG members the wrong way, and her permanent pick to replace Goodman will be scrutinized when she makes it. With classes still scheduled to start at the new campus in 2013, the construction process will be one to follow in 2012, as well.But USF isn’t the only higher education game in town.

Of course I’m going to plug Southeastern University, and our annual National Leadership Forum will bring some more big names to Lakeland in March, including Tim Tebow and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The new administration at SEU has been making many changes since taking over in early 2011, and those should start to bear more fruit in 2012.

Florida Southern recently was named the most beautiful campus in the nation by the Princeton Review in 2011, and they are aggressively marketing new programs.

Polk State College’s rebranding efforts were a major story last year, and with more than 10,000 students it will continue to be a strong influence in the county.

There’s also Webber International and Warner University in Southeast Polk County, Keiser University, and other institutions in the region. Put together, all colleges provide a significant economic impact to the county (no idea what the dollar figure would be), and help train and re-train workers for numerous careers.

In 2012, I expect them all to keep improving and enhancing what they offer to appeal to working adults looking to change fields or complete a degree, as well as keep growing their traditional undergraduate enrollments. The future is bring for higher ed in Polk County.

5. Transit – I was not surprised at all when Polk County voters struck down a proposed transit tax in 2010. I felt the supporters of the initiative never clearly communicated the reasons to pass it (or that Lakeland transit district voters would have their current assessment removed).

And even with the communication problems, it was always a tough sell for a tax increase in a very conservative county during a recession. Kind of a triple-whammy, I guess.

In general, I’m not a big fan of mass transit in Florida. There’s too much sprawl, and mass transit faces inherent structural issues here that make it less efficient than in densely-populated areas farther north. Until gas prices reach an unbearable level, Floridians are more accustomed to and more willing just to drive their cars.

However, there certainly are people who don’t have that option, and county leaders need to continue to work together to provide efficient, reasonably-priced services to those residents who need to get to work or school but who don’t have access to a car.

New Citrus Connection Director Tom Phillips seems to have made a good first impression, and his stated desire to bring the county together for a regional transit system is great. This is a countywide issue, and everyone needs to pool their resources together to make it happen.

Whether another transit tax proposal makes it on the next ballot remains to be seen, but there has been talk it could happen. If so, transit supporters need to have a clear message and spread it much more effectively than they did last time.

6. Legoland – I’ll admit, I was very skeptical about the impact Legoland would have on Polk County (and I still am, to some extent).

In general, I think the park itself can do extremely well, but I’ve worried that tourists will either go back to their homes or their Orlando hotels and not stay in Polk County for dinner or a hotel. Part of my worry comes from the fact there really isn’t much to offer people on Cypress Gardens Blvd. between U.S. 27 and the park itself. And I still think Legoland is overpriced for what it offers compared to Disney, Universal, etc.

But early reports have been positive: businesses are reportedly seeing more customers, the park recently reached capacity for the first time, and The Landings appears to finally be moving forward, a project that would be hard-pressed to succeed without the park.

If Winter Haven can build off the momentum and actually persuade tourists to stay and spend more money here, it will be a huge win for the local economy.

The issue of tourism in general will be worth watching, too. The recent discussion about tourism money in the county going primarily to sports activities and not to the arts is healthy, and hopefully will lead to better exposure for all of the great things the county has to offer visitors.

7. Sale of The Ledger & News Chief – No one else is really talking about this, mainly because The Ledger and the News Chief are the primary outlets that do the talking about this sort of thing. But the sale of the two papers (and others in Florida) by the New York Times Co. to Halifax Media could have major implications on our county.

First is jobs. From all the info that I’ve gathered, no employees have been let go from any of the papers that Halifax bought, including the two in Polk. But there have been changes in the workplace related to vacation, non-compete clauses, etc., that could lead some employees to look elsewhere.

When Halifax bought the Daytona Beach News-Journal a few years ago, quite a few employees were let go. So consider me unconvinced that the new owners still won’t make changes at some point.

The second implication is quality of news coverage. I know both papers have their critics, but there are some VERY talented people working there who do a great job exposing problems in our community, framing debates, and telling the stories of people in Polk County. The New York Times, for all its faults, provided resources and standards of journalism that served our region well.

If Halifax meddles too much in the day-to-day operations, quality could suffer. It’s also possible that Halifax could push the right buttons and things could get better, and that’s certainly what I and others hope happens. Newspapers still are the places best-equipped to keep checks on those in power, and the citizens of Polk County could suffer if our newspapers’ new owners don’t provide the support needed for quality journalism.

In the past, I have liked the idea of local, private ownership as opposed to corporate ownership from far away. But The New York Times was one of the better companies for which to work in newspapers. So I’m going to keep an open mind about Halifax and its ability to successfully operate newspapers in our county, at least for now.

8. 2012 Presidential Election –This one is pretty easy.Of course the election will be a big story in our county, just as it will in every county in America.

John McCain carried Polk by more than 10,000 votes in 2008, and I would be surprised if President Obama does any better in 2012 than he did in 2008 unless the economy really picks up.

I also expect both top presidential candidates to make stops in Polk County at some point, as the I-4 corridor continues to be one of the most coveted to win in Florida, and Florida continues to be one of the most coveted states to win in the nation.

9. East Polk Development – Legoland was already covered above, but it’s not the only thing going on in East Polk County.The proposed Central Polk Parkway continues to gather steam. One of the major parts of its planning is the decision of where it would connect with I-4, and it’s possible that proposed interchange could be announced in 2012.

Construction on the new CSX terminal in Winter Haven is finally expected to begin midway through 2012. Once that project gets going, it will be possible to start on any industrial park plans in the area, and I’m sure that more infrastructure improvements will be coming, as well.

The Landings is lining up tenants, Haines City is bringing in businesses with a new incentive program, and more projects are sure to come up during the year.

10. Charter Schools –This wasn’t going to be on the list until the Lakeland High School story broke last week. In case you missed it, LHS is going to consider becoming a conversion charter school.

While my colleague Billy Townsend at Lakeland Local has issues with charter schools, especially with their student demographics and touting of high performance, I’m a fan of them. There are cases where charter schools have abused their status, but in general they relieve educators of some of the regulations that are found in the public school system.

It’s an issue that I’m very interested in and honestly need to research even more, but regardless of whether you support charters, they are major players in Polk County.

The Lake Wales charter system is massive, and it’s actually larger than some public school districts in the state. The McKeel system is large and looking to expand, collegiate high schools are gaining influence, and the Lakeland Montessori School consistently scores incredibly high.

Scott Lake Elementary is planning to go charter, and Lakeland High’s announcement shows that others are considering their options, as well. I’ve even heard rumblings that a good chunk of public schools in Lakeland were floating the idea of creating a large charter system at one point.

So this is going to be a topic that won’t go away. It’s very much on the radar of the Polk County School Board, and I expect there to be more hardball played between the Board and charter schools going forward as funding becomes tighter.

And there you have it, my Top 10 things to watch in the county in 2012. It’s going to be a big year in Polk County, and I can’t wait to see how things unfold.

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3 Responses to Top 10 Polk Storylines for 2012

  1. Very thorough. Very well done.

    One clarification on charter schools: I don’t have a problem, in principle, with charter schools. I have a problem, specifically, with McKeel. But even more than that, I have a problem with bad faith and dishonesty, in whichever school they’re found. Hence the doctors wives issue at Lincoln, etc.

    One of the things I’ve been meaning to write is that “charter” is a huge word. It encompasses many things that bear little resemblance to each other. We’ve all come to use it too broadly.

    I do think it’s incumbent upon “charter supporters” to explain why I’m wrong, in specific terms, about McKeel and what I see as the bad faith at work in its model. It’s doing what it’s doing, in a sense, in your name. And one of these days, Brandt, it’s not gonna be me writing this stuff.

    One of these days, the Tampa Bay Times or the Herald, or someone else, is going to figure out that Polk County has a 2,800-student, growing charter empire that has 25 percent of less FRL in a pretty poor county. It’s going to see state legislator Seth McKeel on its board. It’s going to see Kelli Stargel’s husband and judge on the board. It’s going to see Larry Ross talking about publicly funded private schools — approvingly. And it’s gonna see all the documentation of dumping/squeezing kids into withdrawal.

    The headline on this package is gonna be: “Is this what we wanted from charter schools?”

    You, Brandt, and other honest, good-faith charter supporters, are going to have to develop a better answer than yes, because they “relieve educators of regulations.”

    • bwmerritt says:

      Thanks for clarifying, Billy. I knew with a drive-by approach in this story I was probably going to oversimplify something, and your position on charters was the one I was most worried about. I know McKeel draws your ire and that you have said in the past the Lake Wales system doesn’t bother you.

      And you’re right that charter school supporters, like myself, need to be able to say more than just “it gives schools more freedom and less red tape.” There’s nothing really objective in that statement that backs up why charters are good. And the South Florida charter fiasco raises some real red flags with the system and how it can be abused. As I said, I just wish I could take a lot more time and really dig into it, but it’s hard when your full-time job isn’t as a reporter anymore, as I know you can appreciate.

      Thanks for commenting and again for clarifying!

  2. Pingback: The Absurd State of Polk County Public Transportation | Lakeland Jobs

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