As the Highlands County Economic Development office advances its work in the community, it continues to hear a recurring need from its employers, employees and residents – there is a growing need for more multifamily rental housing that is affordable for our workforce in Highlands County.
Workforce housing refers to housing that’s in between affordable, low income complexes that are typically developed using government support programs and the local market rate options, which the prices are inflated by the seasonal demand in the area.
With the conversation growing, the Highlands County Industrial Development Authority / Economic Development Commission (IDA/EDC) decided it was time to expand the talks and incorporate the development community into the conversation.
Nearly 50 individuals attended the Developers’ Roundtable hosted by the EDC on Thursday, April 5 at the Jack Stroup Civic Center in Sebring. Attendees included representatives from construction, engineering, development and real estate firms; local businesses and employers; local, state and federal government agencies; as well as representatives from the school board and college.
The county’s economic development office works to grow business in Avon Park, Lake Placid and Sebring, as well as attract new business to the community. One of its major focuses right now is to serve its existing businesses and help them meet their needs. There are nearly 1,200 open positions in Highlands County. It is crucial that local employers find the workforce needed to fill these positions and become fully operational. The openings are a result of many factors, one of which is the shortage of rental housing.
Carol Howard, immediate Past Chair of the Industrial Development Authority / Economic Development Commission (IDA/EDC) opened the meeting.
Howard introduced the county's Economic Development office and explained a few recent changes. About two years ago, the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners established a new Economic Development office within its Development Services department. This office replaced the longtime IDA / EDC operations. The office is now staffed by Meghan DiGiacomo and Taylor Carson Benson. The Industrial Development Authority & Economic Development Commission board, which is one in the same, supports the office as an advisory board to the county commissioners. This public/private partnership is designed to foster and promote sustainable economic growth in Highlands County.
Howard explained that the county continues to experience stable growth and that there are a number of new projects in the works:
Sun Pure Holdings, LLC purchased the former Cargill Juice Plant in north Avon Park. The company is in the process of repurposing the facility to manufacture plastics. They have five product lines and are expected to create about 10 jobs.
Harder Hall was recently purchased and will be transformed into an independent and assisted living facility. The facility is also being expanded to include a memory care facility. The project is expected to create about 80+ jobs.
Sugar Sand Distillery: A new distillery opens this weekend in Lake Placid. Sugar Sand Distillery is Florida’s only estate-grown sugar cane distillery.
Structural Plank Industries The vacant concrete plant located at the Sebring Regional Airport was acquired by Structural Plank Industries and will be used to produced concrete beams.
Keystone Water Company in Lake Placid acquired a new site that will support its water bottling operations in the area and eventually support its expansions.
Nucor: The nation’s largest steel manufacture has selected Frostproof as the location for its newest micro mill where it will produce rebar. The mill is expected to create 240 jobs with an average annual wage of $66,000. This is an excellent opportunity for the region, and will provide many opportunities for our community and our local workforce.
The need for workforce housing is a conversation that has recently been growing at the EDC meetings, so the board wanted to expand the conversation and incorporate our development community into the conversation.
Pat Steed, executive director of the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, facilitated the roundtable. She opened the event with a market report that detailed the current demographics and statistical information for Highlands County. Some facts included Highlands County’s total population (102,138 persons; 76,000 persons over the age of 18), median age (52.1 years), median home value ($85,200), average annual wage ($36,309), labor force (36,071 persons), and key issues (such as multi-family and affordable housing).
After the presentation, the attendees then participated in a roundtable discussion. The attendees discussed if there was enough housing in Highlands County and what is needed to encourage developers to develop more housing.
One participant shared that his company manages 300 rental properties and currently only has four vacancies.
The group agreed that one of the biggest challenges developers face is that lenders have no recent comparable projects to reference when considering a project, and because of that, it’s difficult to secure lenders to finance a project in the area.
The county’s Building Official Eric Longshore noted that there have only been four multi-family housing permits pulled in the last 10 years.
Another participant had a market study done on the area a few years ago. The study identified that there would be a shortage of 400 to 550 multi-family housing units by the year 2018. He predicted that the need has increased because no additional units have been added since the study was completed.
Steed then asked the participants if the developers would value or use an updated study if the county were to source one. The participants agreed that they would use it and it would help their efforts.
In addition to the financing challenge, the participants noted that the cost of new construction and providing the accompanying infrastructure restricts developer’s ability to proceed with new housing projects.
Others expressed concern that the economy would not be able to sustain itself if more multi-family housing was added. It was noted that infrastructure may not bring consumers to Highlands County, but the lack of infrastructure can deter businesses, or individuals, who are considering new project.
“We know there’s not a quick and easy solution for this particular issue,” said Carol Howard, owner of the Carol Group and immediate past president of the IDA/EDC. “It takes a communitywide effort to create effective change. We intended for this roundtable to kickstart the conversation throughout the area. The county, the IDA/EDC and our other community partners will continue to work to attract quality multi-family housing to the area.”
The county’s Development Services Department is now pursuing opportunities to facilitate a housing feasibility study. The purpose of the study will be to provide greater details on the supply, shortage and affordability of housing in the area. The greater depth of information may help prove the need and demand when developers present projects to investors and lenders.