Motorists cruising through the middle of Sumter County on Interstate 75 certainly can see the Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park, a 431-acre commercial center, taking shape. It’s also one of the most visible signs of The Villages’ importance as a regional economic engine as the state struggles to reemerge from the COVID-19 health crisis, said state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who represents the community in the state legislature. “The push by The Villages to create a holistic development for new Floridians has a strong regional economic impact, easily throughout a 100-mile radius,” he said. Nearly 500,000 square feet is either planned or under development at the industrial park, and more is in the works, said Scott Renick, The Villages director of commercial development. “We have a lot of land to develop out there, and there are lots of companies closely tied to our future growth that are interested in having a presence there to be close to The Villages development,” Renick said. The industrial park is just an example of what Rep. Brett Hage, R-Oxford, said excites him about the economic future of his district, which includes all of Sumter County and The Villages in Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.
New commercial, residential and amenity development underway now in The Villages plays a much bigger role these days as the state recovers from the impact of the COVID-19, Hage said. That makes it an important catalyst in the state’s economic resurgence.
“It is a tremendous contributor to this state’s economy, and its ability to continue to build and employ thousands of people will throttle the rest of the state in its rebound,” Hage said. “The Villages is huge for the state’s economy.”
Residential and commercial real estate development and sales in The Villages is one bright spot for a state with sales taxes that lag as visitors remain wary of returning to Florida’s world-class tourism destinations, Hage said.
“There is lot of optimism in Tallahassee in the Legislature’s ability to make the necessary adjustments to the state budget to offset the loss of tourism dollars due to COVID,” he said “But I know the economy in my district, District 33, is continuing to thrive because of the Developer’s pace and due to the influx of people moving from up north to the tri-county area. That’s also a by-product of COVID-19. So, I’m choosing to look at the positives as our state works out of this pandemic.”
No question the state is poised to accept a rush of new residents fleeing from fear of the virus in densely populated urban areas and repressive local governments that undercut personal freedoms in their bid to control it, Baxley said.
“People are interested in leaving the oppressive states they’re in,” he said. “Thankfully, due to some good planning across the board in The Villages, it has really developed into a well-loved community that is well-served beyond just selling houses. The Villages is dynamic in its force. It’s very holistic in what makes a great community, and that makes a big difference. I see a lot of planned development elsewhere, but they’re not as comprehensive as The Villages.”
Either way, The Villages economy is on the rise, Renick said.
“If you look in comparison to the COVID lockdown and early days of restrictions, we’re definitely accelerating,” Renick said. “All signs are positive. There’s definitely optimism. We’re very bullish where we sit today and where we’ll be a few years from now.”
That’s good news for residents, too, because that means more consumer choices, Renick said.
“We have almost two dozen deals in some level of lease negotiations right now,” he said. “That covers the spectrum from retailers, restaurants and service providers.”
All of this activity explains the optimism that Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold expresses when he talks about the county’s economic forecast.
“We have accelerated in several areas coming out of the pandemic shutdown,” he said. “It’s not only with the residential development and sales, but also the commercial activity here in Sumter County and The Villages.”
Because of The Villages, Arnold said, the county did not experience the same level of decline in sales taxes that the state experienced as visitors shunned the normally busy tourism destinations.
“The pent-up demand for housing in Sumter County is really showing itself in the increased value of arms-length transactions,” he said. “We’re also still receiving a lot of commercial inquiries. And the industries we’ve been working with are still moving forward with their development plans.”
All indicators bode well for the local economy, said Frank Calascione, Sumter’s economic development director.
“It’s a robust economy, and we’re seeing great sales numbers,” he said. “It’s much better than we expected.”
Commercial and residential permitting is up, Calascione said. That means jobs, including the initial construction jobs and then the permanent jobs that follow to serve the development.
“With all the industrial development, it adds up to a very busy jobs picture,” he said. “It’s evident that everyone is hiring.”
All of the economic activity, particularly in The Villages, explains Wildwood’s continuing success, said Mayor Ed Wolf.
“I never really noticed anything that came close to a major slowdown, honestly,” he said. “So, I would be very pleased if we can keep the status quo with the economic environment in this area.”
It’s also important this development continue, Wolf said, since it diversifies the tax base and creates new opportunities for residents.
“As we survive this COVID mess, we’re going to see a continuation of what we’ve experienced over the past few years,” Wolf said. “It’s going to be a continuing trend. And it’s going to create increased opportunities for shopping, employment, recreation.”
Arnold shares Wolf’s observation.
“In the fall, we had a jump in permits,” Arnold said. “When I looked at the data, we’re really not off, even during the shutdown, though residential permits slowed some. The Villages simply shifted a lot of its resources to commercial activity. So, we’ve maintained construction even during the early days of the pandemic.”
That’s why it’s so important for The Villages development to continue to provide quality homes and a diversified commercial base, Hage said.
“We need to realize how fortunate we are to live in a place where the economy continues to grow not just year over year but month over month,” he said. “If you look at the rest of the state, they’re not as fortunate. The bottom line is our month-over-month growth allows our retailers, restaurants and service providers — our small businesses — to continue to grow in a time when other businesses are not growing.”
Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or firstname.lastname@example.org.