The Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park

The Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park is an example of The Villages' efforts to diversify Sumter County's economy. It's now about 40% built out.

Wildwood and Sumter County can capitalize on an opportunity for economic advancement in the short term as The Villages develops south of State Road 44, a Villages official told members of the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce.

Robert Chandler IV, The Villages vice president of development, made his remarks Wednesday before a capacity crowd of business owners gathered at Rohan Regional Recreation Complex.

A planned Wellness Village would have an immediate regional impact with the proposed UF Health acute-care hospital and medical research park in The Villages’ southern region, he said.

“We’re really excited about it, with UF Health and what they can bring to it on the research side, along with our capabilities, to execute and put something in the ground,” said Chandler, former executive director of Lake County’s Agency for Economic Prosperity. “This is something that’s not just going to be big for Sumter County and Wildwood, but really the entire state of Florida. When you think of areas that have put places on the map, like Lake Nona or Baldwin Park (in Orlando), or any of these big regional university developments, all these big regional industrial-commercial areas, this is going to be able to compete if not exceed anything those places have done.”

Whole county to benefit

     Chandler’s presentation painted a picture of economic opportunity not only for residents in The Villages, but for every other county resident, along with workers seeking homes in the county, said Matt Gerig, the Sumter chamber’s vice president.

     “Everyone in the room was excited to see what the future holds, especially the Wellness Village,” Gerig said. “That had everyone’s eyes open when he talked about it. I also liked what he said about the growth potential. They have more growth ahead of us than behind us.”

    This opportunity rides on an unprecedented wave of demand from retirees wanting to enjoy The Villages lifestyle, Chandler said. New home sales during the first quarter this year were comparable to the best three-month sales periods in The Villages’ history.

“The effects of the pandemic were definitely severe, but short-lived on the production side,” he said. “Certainly, the Developer’s decision to keep moving paid dividends. We have historically high demand right now. It will not last. We don’t know how long that is — three months, three years. But we’re going to do everything we can to maintain it while it’s here. We do believe the market fundamentals are strong. Short-term, long-term it’s going to be a good ride here in Sumter County. And we feel very confident about that.”

The optimistic report comes even though the business community expressed disappointment and concern over Sumter County’s decision to increase road impact fees by 75%, adding to startup costs for any business building.

Some of those business owners and their employees appealed to county commissioners to not increase the road impact fee, and The Villages offered to voluntarily pay an increase in housing impacts on age-restricted homes to spare commercial startups in the county and housing outside The Villages, but that offer was rejected by three new commissioners. A jump in impact fees does not take effect until late June.

Wednesday’s presentation inspired Wildwood Mayor Ed Wolf, whose constituents benefit from the revenue The Villages is contributing to the city.

“It was an amazing presentation,” he said. “And what a great example of what happened during the pandemic when you listen to the science and follow what the governor did by reopening the state quicker than anywhere else and letting individuals follow personal protocols.”

Chandler’s presentation also reinforced Wolf’s confidence in The Villages’ vision for providing high-quality residential and commercial development, particularly with the addition of the Wellness Village.

“Knowing how The Villages operates, and how they’re laying this out, it’s going to make it as good or better than anything comparable,” Wolf said. “We’re definitely out of the danger zone with the pandemic. And as he pointed out, it’s all wide open now. We’re better than we were before. To me, we’re the employment mecca of Central Florida right now.”

Bigger workforce needed

However, more must be done to solve Sumter’s workforce needs, Chandler told the crowd. The Villages is hoping the addition of new community support districts, which incorporate non-age-restricted housing and amenities south of SR 44, will attract the workforce needed to serve residents.

“But that’s not going to be enough,” he said. “We’re going to need more. That piece of this is going to provide a lot of opportunities for everyone else, all the businesses, Realtors, the builders in the county.”

The Developer also is working hard to ensure the future economic diversification of the county through commercial and industrial development, Chandler said. In particular, he cited the success of the Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park, which is about 40% built out.

“It’s certainly an important element to the county’s economic diversification,” he said. “We’re very high on the industrial side, commercial, office, retail and the wellness piece you’re going to see in The Villages. There are far more things we can do together. Sumter County is going to be working on it. We’re certainly going to do our part, as well as everybody else in this room. We’re excited and happy to be here.”

Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.