Ben Dunn at the BoCC

Development Services Director Benjamin Dunn talks with the Highlands County Board of County Commission about a grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to study the county’s inventory, and need, for workforce housing.

SEBRING — Highlands County has received and accepted a $40,000 reimbursable grant from the state of Florida to study its inventory of affordable housing.

Benjamin Dunn, director of Development Services, said he hopes this study will not only show what the county has, but also what it doesn’t have and needs. It may also provide backup materials for any developer looking to get financing for multi-family units, something Dunn already knows Highlands County lacks, and needs.

Dunn said the county did a round table discussion last April, led by staff at the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, on the subject of what the county needs for economic development.

One takeaway included the county’s struggle with workforce housing availability, specifically multifamily options, such as apartment complexes with amenities like a community center and swimming pool.

“We don’t have that here,” Dunn said.

Why needed?

NuCor, a North Carolina-based steel company, will soon set up a mill just outside the county in Frostproof, which Dunn said should bring 250 jobs with an average annual salary of $60,000. Avon Park is in the process of using a state grant to extend water lines to the facility.

In addition, Dunn said, the former Sun Pure juice plant just inside the county line, north of Avon Park, is expected to house a plastics recycling and reuse company.

Sun Pure Holding, an international plastics recycling and manufacturing company, acquired the existing 90,000-plus square-foot facility and chose Avon Park as the location of its first U.S. production facility.

Dunn said the Economic Development Commission pushed hard to get funding for these utility improvements on plants that are just north of Avon Park, at or across the Polk County line, and within easy commuting distance of Frostproof, Lake Wales and Winter Haven.

Highlands County could attract the companies, but miss out on the employees.

“If we want them to live here, we better make sure we have housing for them,” Dunn said. “If not, they will go north.”

He already knows Winter Haven, Lake Wales and Frostproof want to attract some of those workers to their communities.

Why not here?

Dunn already knows Highlands County lacks apartment complexes for working people. One issue with building them locally the difficulty of getting financing without comparable complexes in the area to prove an apartment complex is viable, including relatively low construction costs and rent in an affordable range.

“Rental rates are somewhat inflated because of seasonal issues,” Dunn said. “A starting teacher can’t afford $1,600 per month for a house.”

They might be able to afford an apartment, but apartments also get expensive in an inflated seasonal market.

To build workforce housing, a developer has to show the ability to fill the complex with tenants and then pay back the loan.

“It’s hard for a lending institution to take the risk if it’s not already been done,” Dunn said.

Dunn said developers can take the county’s completed study to a lending institution, show there is a need that’s lagging, and get funding. Once one project gets off the ground, it’s easier to put in more projects, he said.

The study will also identify any other deficiencies the county has, as well, Dunn said, and give some remedies for that.

Where to build?

Dunn said a developer would obviously look for a prime location that already has zoning in place, as well as utility lines and easements.

The less the developer has to do to complete the project, the more attractive the site. The study will help people find land already zoned for land use and areas with adequate utility availability.

“It’s an economic development issue,” Dunn said: “How can we attract new businesses?”

As far as Dunn is concerned, that development can occur in the unincorporated area or within municipal limits.

“I don’t care. To me it’s all the county,” Dunn said. “I want to see what the fair market rate (rent) is and then let developers go forward in free market.”

It will start, initially, with people looking at vacant land, Dunn said.

“Someone’s going to have to take that risk,” Dunn said. “(We’re) trying to soften that risk.”

When is the study?

Dunn said, under the DEO grant, the county will have to have a final draft completed by May 31.

“We’ve already lined up the consultant we’re going to use,” he said: Kimley-Horn, based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, which is in the county’s library of consultants.

One reason for choosing them, Dunn said, was that the consultant’s staff has a real estate expert, which will help in identifying viable sites for new development.

Another is the fact that the county has received good consulting work from them in the past.

Dunn said other jurisdictions have done similar studies, including DeSoto County and Dunedin. Administrative Coordinator Jeanmarie Garner with the Dunedin Economic Development Department spoke briefly with the Highlands News-Sun about a the study they have underway.

The first part was done by the University of Southern Florida over an 18-month period and provided recommendations and actions steps that Economic Development shared with the Dunedin City Commission.

The next step, Garner said, will be a needs assessment and strategic plan, done by the Kimley-Horn, which will then direct the city how to proceed.

Other reasons

Dunn said this is one piece of the puzzle to making Highlands County more attractive to business development. It’s one reason the county reversed its long-standing prohibition on Sunday morning alcohol sales.

“Some (new residents) may want to have brunch on Sunday,” Dunn said, referring to the traditional Mimosa brunch beverage. “We can give them more options for what they want to do. We want a place where they can live, work and play.”

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