Sumter powers Florida upward

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, The Villages has the fastest-growing economy in the state. Its housing, commercial and industrial expansions include villages south of State Road 44, Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park and other projects such as completion of The Lofts at Brownwood, above.

Even against the backdrop of major calamities,  Sumter County’s financial health has long fueled Florida’s economic engine — a legacy that rests in the hands of county commissioners as they head into budget season.

Driven by newly elected commissioners Craig Estep, Oren Miller and Gary Search, the year so far has been marked with fierce debates over funding for services in the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan statistical area.

The trio, elected on a promise to deliver a 25% property tax cut, have yet to reveal how they will do so.

Their initial plan to offset that lost revenue with a 75% increase in road impact fees imposed on new businesses was made illegal by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Another plan to raise the cap on the fire tax on homeowners by 290% was shouted down by

public outcry.

The six months spent on failed tax increases bumped other issues that citizens have been clamoring to see addressed in the coming budget, such as the lack of affordable housing for working families and plummeting ambulance response times.

The new commissioners have had no public discussion of trimming expenses to fund the growing need for more services here.

The tax-and-spend approach paints another contrast to state Republican leadership, as DeSantis cut $1.5 billion from the state budget he approved three weeks ago.

“We did all this while maintaining strong fiscal reserves and lowering taxes to make sure Florida families benefit this year and for decades to come,” he said.

While the Estep-Miller-Search tax increases would have affected taxpayers large and small countywide, their supporters pushed them forward as a means to exact more for the county coffers from The Villages Developer in particular.

The Developer already pays 10 times more in road impact fees than any other builder, Sumter County records show. In 2020, that was $3.3 million.

The Developer also pays almost half of all property taxes collected by the county’s top 10 commercial property owners, according to county records. In 2020, that was $860,480 for countywide services such as schools, parks, jails and other government activities beyond The Villages community.

“It most certainly is a regional economic engine,” said Alex Sanchez, president and CEO of the Florida Bankers Association, of The Villages’ success. “It’s fantastic what The Villages has become, and is becoming. It’s great for Florida.”

Sanchez, who has served as an advisor to nearly every Florida governor since Jeb Bush, remembers how The Developer was winding down for “build out” just a few years ago, with subcontractors making plans to move their workers from the area for jobs elsewhere.

In 2015, the previous county commission and then-Gov. Rick Scott asked The Developer to reconsider and keep building beyond State Road 44.

“We all thought that development would come to a screeching halt at SR 44,” said Steve Munz, president and CEO of Wildwood’s Galaxy Home Solution. “I was planning on downsizing. We did not know where our next major operations would be. So we put ourself on a five-year budget to not buy any new equipment and to pay down our debts.”

The Village of Fenney and subsequent land purchases reignited Sumter County’s competitive position, said Scott Renick, The Villages director of commercial development.

The public-private partnership put the area in a position to lead the state in rebounding from the pandemic as it did to the Great Recession a decade ago.

“It was a running joke that The Villages community refused to participate in the recession,” he said. “When we compared retail and restaurant vacancy rates throughout the state, our metrics strongly outperformed everywhere else, which is a testament to this community and its residents.”

Today, a year after Florida’s reopening from the pandemic, “We’re very bullish on the future,” Renick said. “When we look at customer demand for space, it’s as strong as its ever been. And our residents support of local businesses is just as strong as it’s ever been.”

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