DeSoto County, Florida
At home in the heartland
Business View Magazine interviews representatives of DeSoto County, Florida for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Cities & Counties
Central west Florida is home to the naturally beautiful and serene DeSoto County. Located only an hour north of Fort Myers and an hour east of Sarasota, the county spreads across the Peace River Valley in lush abundance. It is one of Florida’s leading producers of oranges, watermelons, olives, and tomatoes. It’s also one of the state’s most beloved tourist destinations with endless possibilities for adventure. Whether exploring fragrant fruit orchards, unearthing hidden fossils beneath the sands at Peace River Campground, or hunting for exquisite antiques in Arcadia’s historic downtown, there’s always something new to discover in DeSoto County.
“I would describe us as being in the middle of everywhere – some might say we are small and rural, but DeSoto County is right in the heartland of Florida, surrounded by urban amenities, yet we get to enjoy the quieter life,” shares Mandy Hines, County Administrator. “Our cost of living is 11.4 percent lower than the U.S. average. Yet we have easy access to the adjacent counties of Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, and Highlands. So, in an hour you can be at the beach, or an airport, or seaport. In 30 minutes, you can be at a mall, but we don’t have to live in the same congestion that often comes with living near those types of amenities.” Arcadia is the only incorporated city and is our county seat. Of the county’s population of just under 37,000, about 75 percent live in the unincorporated area.
Hines admits DeSoto County is also very fortunate with lots of unique tourism to entice both visitors and residents. One of the most popular is Arcadia’s Downtown Antique District run by the Antique Association of Arcadia. The district boasts more than 25 antique shops, but every fourth Saturday of the month, over 100 antique dealers temporarily set up shop. It’s no wonder that Florida Monthly magazine named the district as the state’s “Best Place for Antique Shopping.” The County is also home to the Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo, sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). It’s an annual three-day event that celebrated its 92nd year in 2020.
The biggest natural attraction is the gorgeous Peace River offering many different activities from airboat tours to fishing. Sondra Guffey, Director of Economic Development & Tourism, reports, “Tourism is part of everyday life in the county. People like our agricultural activities and that’s part of our appeal. Some visitors enjoy going to the citrus groves where oranges grow, or to a ranch to watch a cowboy work the cattle and horses. It’s the real thing.”
When promoting DeSoto County to new markets, Guffey says it really helps being part of the Florida Heartland. This group of six areas located to the north and west of Lake Okeechobee, consists of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, and Okeechobee counties. She notes, “We join forces to promote the entire region because we are all very similar. That way we quadruple our impact by working together. A major part of our marketing is digital, so we reach well beyond our geographical area.
Hines adds there are currently eight residential housing developments all in various stages of the approval. Combined, the developments total over 3,500 proposed rooftops. “Most are single family, but there are about 110 multi-family condos,” Hines states. “We do have an application for 14,000 units, which are a combination of single and multi-family dwellings. That is a large scale, probably multi-decade project. Our building department is staying extremely busy with lots of activity.”
Along with construction, the county’s biggest industries are agriculture, government services, and healthcare. Distribution and logistics are also becoming increasingly important. In terms of upcoming projects, DeSoto County has 10 applications for new businesses ranging from a Planet Fitness to a lumber company. There is also an approved development plan, currently in the investor stage, for a very large agricultural project. Hines can’t announce anything yet but did share it would be the first pectin plant in the United States. It would also mean more well-paying jobs for the area, always a benefit. “We’re no different in the challenges for our workforce, so we’re focusing on that,” says Hines. “The beautiful thing about being in the middle of everywhere is we have radius. For example, we’re home to a massive Walmart Distribution Center. We have people driving from an hour away to work there or at other locations within the county.”
Helping to extend the county’s radius is the Arcadia Municipal Airport. Owned and operated by the city, it was named Florida’s Airport of the Year. During World War I, Arcadia was unofficially called ‘Aviation City’ since a lot of military aviation training took place at the Carlstrom & Dorr Fields, only 11 miles east. The proud aviation tradition continues with people flying into the airport from all over the state. It’s a favorite place to stop and refuel with affordable gas, as well as grab a bite to eat from food trucks. There’s also a pilot shelter, campground with a fire pit, and bicycle access into town. The non-profit Friends of Arcadia Airport (FOAA) even created a fly-in/camp-out center for visitors, and host fly-in pancake breakfasts to attract out of town pilots to further stimulate the local economy.
Infrastructure projects also help further the community. Several years ago, U.S. Highway 17 (US 17) was converted into four lanes through DeSoto. “We have new major state roads that intersect in our county making it a really good transportation and logistics warehousing destination,” states Hines. “Right now, Cardinal Contractors, Inc. is doing our wastewater rehabilitation program. We’re part of the four-county owned Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority (PRMRWSA). We have access to potable water, but we needed to expand our wastewater capacity to meet demand. There’s a little lag time getting that capacity constructed, permitted, and planned. The development stage also takes a while, but we’re working hard on expanding our wastewater capacity.” She also details how a $1.4 million bridge project is just finishing up along Reynolds Road. Specifically, a wooden decked bridge was replaced with a “lengthy monolithic slab concrete bridge.”
DeSoto County even has the most Florida Power & Light (FPL) solar energy centers out of all the counties in the entire state. It has been a state-of-the-art area for FPL’s clean energy ideas ever since the first FPL DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center was built in 2009. This past May, FPL’s fifth solar energy center, the Rodeo Solar Energy Center went online. It contains approximately 300,000 solar panels and adds about 74.5 megawatts of additional power to the grid. Along with championing solar energy, DeSoto is also known for its many campgrounds and recreational vehicle (RV) parks. Guffey explains, “The RV parks, especially the ones with all-terrain vehicle (ATV) paths are popular because they can be hard to find. Some visitors come all the way from Miami to have this kind of outdoor rugged experience.”
Thinking ahead three to five years, Hines would like to continue increasing the county’s wastewater capacity. She also wants to make some “headway on the broadband initiative to make up for the gaps in coverage. It would be good to have some concrete programming or joint venture projects with the DeSoto County School District to help change the face of the workforce going forward.”
Guffey agrees, citing she would also like to further increase tourism to become a top destination within Florida. “Sunseeker Resort, being built by Allegiant Airways, is a huge development in our neighboring county. That’s going to be a great asset, because people from all over the country will be coming to our area. We want to start attracting them directly to DeSoto County and I think that we have the right amenities. So, whatever we can do to get ready for that over the next three years will be a bonus.”
AT A GLANCE
DeSoto County, Florida
What: A progressive rural community; population 37,000
Where: Central west Florida
Primoris Water & Mechanical – www.prim.com
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