What I Learned in 2020: The World Does Not Stop

On January 1, 2020 — like many people — I looked forward and saw a year with potential challenges ahead but also great opportunity. I had read some news reports about a new virus in China, but it was distant and not a serious concern. The economy was humming along. Election drama was picking up a bit, particularly when it seemed that Bernie Sanders had the inside track on the Democratic nomination. There was some drama out there, but nothing earth-shattering.

In my cozy corner of the world, we were finishing a vacation to Missouri to see family and enjoy some true winter weather. Our youngest had half a year left in our church’s pre-school and had just performed in the Christmas pageant, one of our favorite moments each year. Our oldest was excelling in 1st grade while advancing in 2nd grade math. My dad had just retired a few months earlier and we were all looking forward to spending more time together. I had just rolled off the elder board at our church and was excited to keep working on a new vision initiative with our new pastor, who had just started in September. 

Our jobs were going well. My company was just getting ready to break ground on its new downtown building and I was excited for new ideas we had planned in Marketing. The school where my wife teaches was growing and she had a solid routine going with her students. Our community — Lakeland/Polk County, Florida — was on the rise with a growing and diversifying economy.

At the annual economic forecast breakfast in January 2020, the keynote economist said:

“This economy is booming. And that’s the national economy. Right here, it’s doing even better.”

How quickly things changed.

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Gifted, Faithful Black Leaders Making a Difference in Polk

As I’ve watched the scenes of anger, pain, discord and violence across the country the past few days, I’ve tried to identify ways to contribute to the solution and the way forward. There are many that I hope to pursue, and one of those is to be more proactive and public in my appreciation for black individuals and leaders making a difference.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with and observe many incredible black leaders in Polk County over the years. I wanted to highlight a few as a way to hopefully heal our community in a small way and to take a small personal step toward a more intentional way of sharing the burdens of my neighbors.

The names below are by no means an exhaustive list. We are blessed with many, many black leaders in official and unofficial positions impacting our community. That’s a major reason why I’m confident in Polk County’s ability to come out of this stronger and more united. We have a track record, especially in recent years, of diverse leadership committed to working together to solve our problems and create a better future for all. My hope and prayer is that trend continues.

Without further ado … here are some of Polk’s finest: Continue reading

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Revenue Sources, The Heights, and Solving Lakeland’s Looming Budget Crisis

Part of me feels late to the game, but I had actually started working on this about a month ago when the Save the Heights initiative was just getting started. I was wanting to take a comprehensive look at the City of Lakeland budget challenges on the horizon and how The Heights fits into that conversation.

So, here I am weeks later, finally getting around to this. The landscape has changed, as city officials and even the media have taken notice of the outpouring of support for The Heights (and the old civic center and Lakeland Community Theatre headquarters), and there is a real conversation happening around the value of these entities to our community. There have also been clear statements from city leaders that there aren’t any plans remotely in the works to sell off these properties.

That being said, there is still a major budget challenge looming for Lakeland. As LEDC President Steve Scruggs outlined in his now famous (infamous?) presentation to the City Commission in January, the lease payments from Lakeland Regional Health will cease in 2040. That will leave a $14 million hole in the budget, though the amount could increase in the years leading up to 2040. Continue reading

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A Lakeland Wish List

So much continues to change and grow and improve in our community. Since I last posted on this blog nearly five years ago, Florida Poly has arrived, Dixieland has had a renaissance, Disney has filmed a movie here, we have a First Watch, the Confederate monument in Munn Park was moved, Bonnet Springs Park is happening, and the list goes on and on.

But there is still much to do, with exciting things already happening, such as the Amazon freight terminal coming to Lakeland Linder International (still feels weird to write ‘International,’ but it’s awesome). With that in mind, I wanted to return to this writing endeavor with a (certainly incomplete) wish list of what I’d like to see next on the horizon.

In no particular order…. Continue reading

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My Ride, My Roads Sales Tax Comparison

I’m still weighing my decision on whether to vote for the My Ride, My Roads sales tax referendum coming up on Tuesday. I don’t like increasing taxes, but I do like local control and efficient organizations. Tom Phillips and Polk Transit qualify under both of those criteria, so I’m torn.

My leaning right now is to vote for the initiative, and I’m still doing some research just to make sure I’m not missing anything. One of the things I was curious about was how exactly does an 8 percent sales tax (what our new rate would be) compare to other areas. The opposition has harped on the fact that it would be the highest in the state, yet we’d be tied with Pinellas County if a similar referendum passes there. I was also sure other areas of the country would be higher (and lower), and started looking for a sampling. Continue reading

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Rivalry Names for Southeastern vs. Florida Southern

Last fall, Ray Beasock of The Ledger wrote a great feature questioning why Southeastern and Florida Southern don’t compete against each other in athletics. As a former SEU employee, I know it mostly comes down to Florida Southern not wanting to do it.

Maybe the administration thinks SEU is below their competition level, maybe they don’t want to throw the other local school a bone, maybe they don’t see any benefit to winning but problems if they lose (which would be a major upset, if we’re going to be honest). Whatever the reason, I wholeheartedly agree with Ray that the schools should find some way to compete.

Rivalries are fun, and to have athletic events between two private schools that are literally 5 minutes apart would be pretty cool for the community.

I don’t want to rehash Ray’s article, but I did want to do a fun post of what we could call the rivalry when (if?) it ever happens. So here we go, the top 10 names for the future SEU-FSC rivalry (for reference, Florida Southern is the Moccasins and SEU is the Fire): Continue reading

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LPD Controversy: Observations from Lakeland Commission, Jerry Hill Meeting

I haven’t weighed in at all on the LPD mess to this point on here. I’ve put some comments out on Twitter every now and then, but I haven’t had the time or really the collected thoughts to post something worthwhile.

I caught the final back and forth of the Lakeland City Commission’s meeting with State Attorney Jerry Hill on Friday. Hill had already made a presentation to the Commission, which I was able to follow on Twitter thanks to the posts by @LakelandGov and The Ledger’s Lenore Devore (@lebe1963). The presentation outlined numerous instances where Hill’s office has been unable to get information from LPD in a timely manner, if at all, leading to cases that couldn’t be prosecuted and potentially dozens of criminals on the streets who otherwise would have been convicted and jailed.

Hill’s appearance followed months of back and forth in the media with Hill criticizing LPD (especially Chief Lisa Womack) while a grand jury report that was part of an investigation into public records issues at the department sat dormant thanks to the city’s legal efforts to keep it that way (to the tune of more than $200,000 in taxpayer money). The grand jury’s presentment was finally released this month, and suffice to say it was about time all these parties got together face-to-face, save for Chief Womack who did not speak at the meeting.

The part I caught was basically a Q&A for the Commission and City Manager Doug Thomas to address Hill, and there were some interesting points. Here’s a few thoughts from what I heard and also read on Twitter and TheLedger.com:

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Quick Future of Downtown Lakeland Follow-Up

I wanted to come right back and flesh out some more of my thoughts from yesterday’s post about the future of Downtown Lakeland and Howard Wiggs’ recent vision meeting.

Commissioner Wiggs and I spoke for a few minutes today and are planning to talk again in the near future regarding his thoughts for downtown and ways downtown can be improved. He was very forthright and engaging in our conversation.

There was a misperception on my part and others regarding the nature of his meeting on Wednesday. He said today that he is not interested in controlling the vision or discussion of downtown’s future. The purpose of the Wednesday meeting was to generate ideas that can be brought to the City Commission or LDDA or a formal task force to restart the dreaming process for Downtown Lakeland.

This was also confirmed during the City Commission agenda study this morning, which @DixieCRA covered adeptly. The commissioners and city manager agreed that there was some momentum for downtown visioning and that it’s important to open up the process.

The most recent plan for downtown was developed in 2009, so there’s lots of room for updating and re-imagining. Wiggs said during the meeting, according to @DixieCRA, that he liked the idea of LDDA in partnership with the city leading the way. Mayor Fields also emphasized having public meetings to keep everything in the open.

So, it sounds like the ball is rolling on a new Downtown Lakeland strategic planning process. This should be a good thing for the city, and I’m encouraged after seeing the recap of the commission meeting and speaking with Commissioner Wiggs. His initiative and that of those he invited to the lunch was key in the broader discussion.

Update: Had a question on Facebook about the 2009 plan. It’s still posted online. You can access it here: http://www.plandowntownlakeland.com/theplan.html

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Is Downtown Lakeland’s Future Turning Into a Turf War?

Consider me part of the confused camp after I read this morning that Lakeland mayoral candidate Howard Wiggs hosted a Downtown Lakeland vision lunch Wednesday at Grasslands.

The water got even muddier as I followed Twitter updates from the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority this morning, at which Wiggs was added to the agenda to talk about his Wednesday meeting.

According to The Ledger’s recap of Wiggs’ private lunch, which was closed to the press after some brief presentations so that everyone could speak “candidly,” Wiggs has heard complaints about how downtown is run. There are some people who don’t feel that they are involved in the discussion on downtown’s future, and they want to be. Wiggs figured someone should lead the charge, so he invited people to lunch.

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Why I’m on the Fence About The Ledger’s Paywall

The digital revolution has put newspapers under intense pressure.

That being said, like most Polk County residents, I was surprised to see Jerome Ferson’s column in Sunday’s edition of The Ledger announcing that the paper was transitioning to a digital subscription model. Readers are going to have to pay to read The Ledger online beginning this weekend.

This isn’t a new discussion or a decision made in the past few weeks. This idea was being considered when I was in the newsroom five years ago, and gained some more traction when The New York Times introduced its paywall. The Times used to own The Ledger before selling to Halifax Media a couple of years ago.ledgercountdown

Other newspapers have done this too, such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Wall Street Journal. Truthfully, management wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t consider online subscriptions as a way to generate more cash in the face of declining circulation and reduced print ad revenue.

But I’m not sold this was the right move for The Ledger, and I’m not sure if I’m going to get the online subscription. Continue reading

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