Lakeland City Commissioners today approved two land-use measures sought by The Williams Companies for their massive holdings near Florida Polytechnic University but not before saying they hope the land owners work with them on their vision for a research park in the area.
Two changes to modify and update the rights and obligations granted the owner almost two decades ago were approved unanimously today. Williams, an Oklahoma-based energy company, has recently shown increased interest in selling the land.
Though the changes did not add or remove building restrictions on the land, when the issue came to the table commissioners said they were concerned that areas on the property marked for research park could be used to build warehouses.
The development plan:
Commissioner Stephanie Madden has led the defense of the area near Florida Polytechnic University and has regularly spoken with other officials in Auburndale, the Polk County government and Polytechnic.
“I was so thankful for the gentlemen saying they want to work together Friday,” Madden said, referring to two Williams attorneys who attended the commission’s agenda preview session last week.
The land is key to improving Lakeland’s economic trajectory, Madden said, but would be a lost opportunity if it is allowed to become a sea of low-wage, low-employment warehouses. Instead, she said she believes the area would be best used for industry and research closely tied to the public university, and new housing and commercial developments.
She cites Lake Nona, a hub of biomedical research outside Orlando, as an ambition.
She also referenced a concept drawing from 2010 for a high-speed rail station on the tract. That idea fell through when the high-speed rail line was nixed, but has new relevance considering Virgin Trains USA’s plan to build its high-speed rail line to go from Miami to Orlando to Tampa.
“When I looked at that picture of the Williams station that they crafted, I was so inspired,” she said, adding that it “illustrated the potential” of the property.
Madden’s support on the commission is wide, though the city lacks the power to unilaterally revoke the previously agreed-to building rights.
“I do concur,” Commissioner Bill Read said. “This will be a great opportunity for Lakeland in the future; it will be a great gateway to the city.”
Commissioner Justin Troller, likely alluding to his difficult fight to get his colleagues’ commitment to build a publicly owned internet service provider, said it’s not by chance that Lakeland looks like it does.
“I share Commissioner Madden’s vision,” he said. “It’s kind of difficult to persuade a vision that potentially could be far out. A lot of our community was built on vision and we take it for granted how we look like today.”
As to Williams, saying the city and the company have spent millions developing the tract, “I think it’s in both of our interests to work together to realize a vision,” Troller said.