The Lakelander Issue 100

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100 OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL BUSINESS LEADERS Who Are Up for the Challenge of Tackling Growth ABOVE THE CROWD Local Real Estate Broker Earns National Acclaim WELCOME CANARY A New York Developer Brings Lifestyle Living Option to City He's Fallen in Love With celebrating our 100th issue

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Up for the Challenge

To grow into who we want to become requires the investment and passion of leaders like these men and women.


The Blueprint for a Better Future

The story of how one developer from the “outside” found his footing alongside local leaders offers a glimpse at the

options and development in store for our future.



Curt Patterson


Jason Jacobs


RJ Walters


Jonathan Sierra


Deb Patterson


Ted W. Weeks IV



Curt Patterson | 863.409.2449


Jason Jacobs | 863.606.8785

Sharon Blackburn | 813.789.4361


Alexa Estevez

Bryelle Walters



Jordan Randall


Briana Chenot

Mallory Sallstrom


Jordan Randall



Jason Jacobs


David Heideman

The Lakelander is published 12 times annually by Lakelander Media, 1505 Florida Ave. S, Lakeland, FL 33803. Reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission of The Lakelander is prohibited. The Lakelander is not responsible for any unsolicited submissions.


Lakelander Media, 1505 Florida Ave. S, Lakeland, FL 33803 Customer Service: 863.701.2707 •

in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6


My 13-year-old son cannot wait until he hits a growth spurt (or so he thinks), while my 10-year-old daughter is daily processing what it means to be in the midst of considerable physical development.

Yes, females certainly mature more quickly than males and, if I’m being honest, many people of both genders never really grow up, but this is simply an acknowledgment that growth looks and feels different to everyone, and happens at varying rates, and the same thing can be said of towns and cities.

It’s also fair to say that my 13- and 10year old both think they are “grown up,” but for the sake of this conversation, they are still squarely in the “planning and zoning” phases of life, with many permits still to come.

At The Lakelander we are celebrating our 100th issue—and if you are reading this, thank you for being part of a community that supports us—by recognizing some of the people and businesses who have dedicated themselves to solving the complex challenges and taking on the incredible opportunities that come from being part of a city that is growing at a more rapid pace than almost anywhere in America.

It’s exhilarating because new businesses, schools and neighborhoods continue to go up all around us, but it can also be frustrating because sometimes the infrastructure lags behind or it feels like some of the small town charm has been replaced with sprawl that lacks character.

But at the heart of our development, I believe, is the most important character of all—that of the people who are the movers and shakers bridging the gap from our past to the future we will inherit.

As Mayor Mutz is quick to illustrate, it takes significant partnerships and solutions to be a city that strives to meet the needs of everyone, but he believes the 2,300+ city staff and the countless connectors and partners of our city are uniquely equipped to handle the challenge.

Positive change requires purposeful policies and symbiotic relationships; smart growth is about acknowledging fiscal constraints and finding creative solutions that tie in private investors and public institutions.

It is also about an engaged public who is active in the planning process and is willing to demonstrate a little perspective that goes beyond their front porch and doesn’t stop at the first intersection outside their neighborhood.

If you ask someone who has lived off of New Jersey Rd. for the last three decades about traffic in the area, their answer may very well begin with a shaking of their head. If you ask the same question to someone who moved from New Jersey to Lakeland three years ago, they might reply, “What traffic?”

As Valerie Ferrell, Manager of the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency, recently told me: “I really do think we’re on the cusp of greatness.”

Greatness is something to strive for, growing pains are a normal part of the process, and I believe that if we work together there’s a good chance we can become exactly who we were created to be.


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I had the incredible privilege of being part of Wyatt and Jessica's special day, and I'm absolutely thrilled to share that their love story is featured in the Lakelander! Swipe to the last slide to catch a glimpse of the spread and grab yourself a copy today!

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Mallory is pursuing her master’s in graphic design at Liberty University with plans to graduate this May. She has dedicated herself to refining her craft and is passionate about using design to tell stories and create meaningful impact.

Beyond her design pursuits, Mallory finds joy in raising her sweet daughter with her husband, spending time with her local church, capturing moments through photography and exploring new places.


I am a curious writer with a heart for people, and I love creating a space for small business', athletes or students to have their story told. Everything I do is to see a smile on someone's face—whether that's designing a poster for a classmate, capturing candid photos at different events, managing projects with my co-workers, or coordinating fun activities for our football games.

I am a Southeastern University (SEU) student majoring in multimedia journalism with a minor in graphic design. Along with my studies, I work two student jobs at SEU: digital marketing manager and athletic production manager.


Bryelle has a zeal for life, especially when it comes to hanging out with her besties, crafting one-of-a-kind artwork and singing her favorite tunes at the top of her lungs.

She loves to make people laugh and smile and is a wonderful sister to her five crazy siblings. She enjoys her adventures as a fourth grade student.

When she grows up she aspires to be a writer, or a fashion designer, or a teacher. Only time will tell.





is a typical Wednesday morning for Florida Southern College (FSC) students Lauren Schreader and Daniel Jones, as they operate FSC’s new studentrun coffee cart, Morning Grind. While Schreader makes her favorite beverage, the maple spice latte, for a fellow Moccasin, Daniel is greeting customers and handling transactions at the register. The cart, located on the corner of the Barney Barnett School of Business and Free Enterprise building, right off of Lake Hollingsworth, is about more than just providing students flavorful caffeine jolts each morning—it’s evidence of a culture that has shifted from students being taught the importance of entrepreneurship and capitalism, to being trained on how to become an entrepreneur and succeed in a capitalist economy.

To oversee this culture shift toward more hands-on business opportunities, FSC hired Justin Heacock as the Director of the Center for Free Enterprise. Having earned a Master's Degree in Entrepreneurship in Applied Technology and having worked alongside 450 student-led startup companies, Heacock was the perfect fit.

For the debut of FSC’s student-entrepreneur program, Heacock hosted an on-campus art contest that was won by 2023 FSC graduate Matteo Zampese. His art became the mural for the Barney Barnett School of Business office. The six foot by 20 foot hand illustrated eye-catcher displays graphs, money and coffee, with tree vines growing from the items to express the growth and prosperity of a business student. “It really made the space pop.

It represents who we are and it made the business place our own,” Heacock shared.

The office also recognizes alumni who have become entrepreneurs, as well as business students who have won state and local competitions, such as FSC students who attended the Roundtable of Entrepreneurship Educators of Florida (REEF) startup pitch competition in February and won the REEF Governor's Cup.

“At a high level, what our program does is we focus on providing an education, financials and resources to help students go from a point of ‘Hey, I have a really cool idea,’ into ‘How do I actually make it real and tangible in the world?’” said Heacock.

To enrich students’ abilities in their craft and increase their engagement in the business program, Heacock introduced another experiential program called the learning lab. It’s Heacock’s idea of empowering students to start a business from scratch. “The whole point of the learning lab is we found value in a student’s opinions and their voice and we created a


‘sandbox’ environment where they had the opportunity to flourish,” Heacock said, “It’s what learning should be.”

This past October, Heacock offered eight students their sandbox opportunity when he pitched the idea about an on-campus coffee cart. Among the eight was Schreader, a junior communications major with a concentration in interpersonal organization and a minor in film. “He came into my comm research class and pitched the idea and I was like, wow, coffee. That's so cool. And that's what got me into it,” she says, before acknowledging her grandparents passed down their love of coffee to her.

Jones, a junior who is majoring in administration with a minor in business analytics, did not feel the same way. “It's kind of funny because he came into our class and gave a five-minute pitch. And I was like, ‘That's stupid. I'm not doing that,’” said Jones, who is not overly fond of coffee. “And then, here I am.”

Jones became one of the marketing partners for Morning Ground, working alongside Schreader who became the external relations partner. Their first step was to name and brand the cart. With the help of Heacock and by polling FSC students, the name Morning Grind was selected. Jones is credited for designing the logo and for the photography you can find on

"It's been great for us to learn as entrepreneurs, and it's something that's going to grow much bigger than we are right now."
FSC Student Daniel Jones

their Instagram account (@morninggrind_fsc).

After their cart passed inspection in December, Morning Grind officially launched in the Spring of 2024.

Through a partnership with TJ Zimmerman from Lakeland-based Concord Coffee, their roasts have been Colombian but soon will be changed to Guatemalan. Although Schreader has some knowledge about making coffee, she said that Zimmerman has been a huge help in perfecting the flavors. “TJ had us do a ‘Beat the Joe competition,’ where we each made a cup of coffee and had him try it. Then he would tell us what to improve on, which helped our craft.”

As for Jones, he no longer thinks the concept is “stupid.” He said the cart has helped him learn the proper chain of communication with businesses and FSC Alumni, as well as helped him gain marketing experience. “The most interesting part has been trying to market to real people from around Lakeland, and not just students, as well as learning to secure sponsors for signage and products,” Jones said.

The cart is fully funded by FSC as well as the following local sponsors: Concord Coffee, Catapult, Robert Berganza Furniture and Design and S&B Metal Products. The students attend monthly board meetings with Michael Weber, Dean of the Business Department, and have a


high level of support from a variety of FSC staff. Students are paid $12 an hour and earn additional income from the profit of every cup of coffee, refresher, tea or snack they sell. So far, students have sold around 1,300 cups of coffee, but the operation has lost about 800 dollars per week. Jones and Schreader are hopeful they can help turn the financial picture around, and said it would be a win for Morning Grind if students could begin using their campus food currency, Snake Bites, to purchase items from the cart.

They both also look forward to increasing partnerships with clubs across campus and expanding their catering options for student and staff functions. “It's been great for us to learn as entrepreneurs, and it's something that's going to grow much bigger than we are right now. So we're not quite in the green yet, but we're getting there,” Jones said.

Morning Grind Coffee is the first learning lab at FSC and will remain as the foundation of the pathway for student expression and the beginning of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. The cart will be closed for the summer but will reopen when the school year begins in August. To learn more, follow Morning Grind on social media (@morninggrind_ fsc) or visit


From matchas to lattes to coffee and tea, there is something for everyone at Morning Grind.

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WRITTEN BY RJ WALTERS PHOTOS BY JORDAN RANDALL FLORIDA Thomas DiCesare, partner and wealth advisor at Waverly Advisors, appreciates the service provided by his relationship manager Coady Cheek.

Rick Ricart is in a hotel room in Jerusalem, making slight changes to an upcoming Holy Land tour and checking on the status of a wire transfer.

Thomas DiCesare is on the phone with a client discussing their financial goals, while glancing at a document in his email that needs to be signed.

Rick is president of Imagine Tours and Travel; Thomas is a partner and wealth advisor for Waverly Advisors.

Clients count on them every day to provide great services in a timely fashion, and Rick and Thomas count on a dedicated team of bank professionals working diligently behind the scenes on their behalf. For them and numerous others, Bank of Central Florida offers the collaborative spirit and personal touch that helps propel their businesses to new heights.


Rick Ricart’s father, also named Rick, was one of six men in 1959 to found Wholesale Tours International, the first company to offer Evangelical tours from North America to Europe and the Holy Land.

Fast forward more than four decades later, and the New York native and his wife, Amy, founded the Christian travel company Imagine Tours & Travel here in Lakeland. Since 2005, Imagine has been booking and leading tours to Israel, Egypt, Europe, South Africa and other tourist hot spots.

Amy and Rick Ricart, founders of Imagine Tours and Travel, have counted on Bank of


"We have the flexibility to, within reason, work in the gray areas and outside the box to meet each individual client's needs."

VP/Relationship manager

Kim Knaisch

Both Rick and Amy graduated from Florida Southern College, and they were excited to make Lakeland their home after a decade honing their business skills in the Midwest. When they started Imagine they were working with a large well known bank, but over time they realized they needed quicker access to professionals and a bank that had more customizable options to fit their distinct needs.

“The level of communication we provide to our clients is tremendous, whether it is in person, through emails, on the phone, etc.,” says VP/Relationship Manager Kim Knaisch. “We have the flexibility to, within reason, work in the

gray areas and outside the box to meet each individual client’s needs…which isn’t always the case with larger institutions.”

Amy said that she could tell almost immediately that Bank of Central Florida and Imagine share many of the same core values, and she and her husband have numerous stories of how bank leadership, including CEO Paul Noris, stepped in if necessary to ensure any challenges were handled quickly and effectively.

What started as just the husband and wife duo has blossomed into a team of more than 20 staff who are dedicated to making people’s travel dreams come true—but to do that it takes much more than just knowing what landmarks to hit and how to book flights. It means being able to securely handle people’s money, understanding the fine details of international transactions and having the ability to make changes on the fly.

Amy noted a time when Imagine needed assistance with their checking machine and VP/Treasury Management Officer Linda Harkins immediately jumped in to help resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

Rick said the difference between his experience with Bank of Central Florida and other banks is night and day.

“It took one of the larger banks a year before they even acknowledged that we had taken our business to [Bank of Central Florida] and we got a call, ‘Hey, is there something wrong? Is there anything we can do?’ Rick recalls. “I told them, ‘It’s a little too late for that now.’”

Central Florida more than a decade.
"I’ll shoot over an email about opening an account, and by the time I've had lunch or finished up an appointment, the team has outlined the next steps to keep things moving."
Local Wealth Advisor Thomas DiCesare


DiCesare, born and raised in Lakeland, understood from a young age the importance of finding a bank that cares deeply about what you care about. His father, Joe, a principal of Citrus Air Conditioners Inc., and lifelong entrepreneur, enrolled at Bank of Central Florida in 2019, in part because of the trust he had in local leadership made up of people he had rubbed shoulders with in the community.

As Thomas started in real estate investing and now is a wealth advisor, he knew he needed a bank that could keep pace with the speed of business and be able to help him at a moment’s notice.

He said since he joined Bank of Central Florida in 2019 he has been consistently impressed with the attentiveness of the professionals he works with.

“I’ll shoot over an email about opening an account, and by the time I've had lunch or finished up an appointment, the team has outlined the next steps to keep things moving,” he says with a smile.

Coady Cheek, the VP/Professional Relationship Manager who oversees DiCesare’s accounts, acknowledges the responsiveness of employees is one of the bank’s key pillars, and because of that, every relationship manager is equipped with a support specialist.

As the two sit and chat at the bank’s downtown location, their conversation bounces from business to hobbies to their families—not surprising since DiCesare graduated from Lakeland Christian School, as did Cheek’s wife, Ashley.

“One thing I love is that I live, work and worship all right here and I see folks like Thomas on a regular basis,” Cheek says.

Cheek said the intentional controlled growth by bank leadership has kept clients happy—all while the bank has doubled in total assets in the past five years.

Bank of Central Florida now has six locations in Central Florida, and at the core of its strategy is to help people achieve their business and financial dreams, whether it’s an international company flying people halfway across the globe or local entrepreneurs growing portfolios that create win-win scenarios for everyone involved.

• Local market knowledge

• Quick responses

• Personalized support

• Local decision making

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Written By RJ Walters Photos by Jordan Randall Developed in partnership with RE/MAX Experts


How One Local Realtor Built a Brokerage That Has Earned National Acclaim

People who know Andrea Dockery aren’t at all surprised by her success, but her journey to being named the RE/MAX 2023 Broker/ Owner of the Year for a single office franchise nationwide has been filled with them.

In fact, it’s still somewhat of a surprise to the 59-year-old Lakeland native that she has received these accolades.

Dockery developed her business acumen in a variety of roles.

She learned how to appreciate the details of an interior space from working retail, she honed her analytical skills working at Dun & Bradstreet, and after graduating from college she earned experience in customer service.

She was a star computer salesperson for a large company, and then, in her late 20s, astute local businessman and financial adviser Hollis Hooks of the firm Smith Barney (now Morgan Stanley), recognized Dockery’s talent and brought her on board as a financial consultant.

Yet it was during a pause in her career, while she was staying at home with her daughter Katharine, when her lifelong fondness for architecture—which came from her late father, Ludwig Spiessl, (a Lakeland area architect originally from Munich, Germany), and her love for helping people merged unexpectedly.

review plans for the new RE/MAX Experts office being constructed at 439 S. Florida Ave.

Andrea Dockery (right), earned the distinction of RE/MAX 2023 Broker/Owner of the Year for a single office franchise.

Katharine had entered middle school, meaning the day-to-day parental involvement was dialed down, causing Andrea to ask herself, “Now what?”

“I’m not really the go play tennis and have lunch everyday kind of [person]...,” Dockery says with a chuckle. “But three times within a month I had friends tell me they were thinking about moving and I was like, ‘Really? Where do you want to move to?' And I was just driving the entire area trying to find homes for them.”

Now, sitting at a table overlooking the lush greenery of Lone Palm Golf Club more than a decade later, Dockery reflects on her start and feels that God was clearly pushing her in a new direction, one that culminated in real estate.

Then, in her usual prudent fashion, Dockery carefully analyzed three of the largest local real estate agencies, ultimately deciding to join a broker who had been a colleague’s client at Smith Barney years earlier. She recalled how he had said this realtor was “setting the town on fire”: it was the late Jan Bellamy, who founded the RE/MAX Experts franchise that Dockery now owns.

“I came home and told [my husband] Carl, ‘It’s either going to be really really good or really really bad because we’re very straight forward, matter-of-fact people,’” she recalls. “And it was amazing, of course. Jan is probably still laughing at me from her grave because I naively thought I was just going to do this part-time.”

Dockery said she took to the real estate business like “a duck to water.” She earned the RE/MAX Executive Club Award status in her first year and was a 100% Club level producer by the end of her second year. In 2020, she earned the RE/MAX Hall of Fame Award.

Her husband, Carl Dockery—well regarded for his shrewdness as an investor, underwriter and entrepreneur, and who served as his father Doc’s junior partner in the reinsurance business that Doc built as a result of founding Summit Consulting—said his wife of 25 years has a distinctive set of skills that suit her particularly well for the real estate profession.

These include, but are not limited to:

• Her devotion to the success of her agents

• Her strong marketing and negotiation skills that result in holistic good outcomes for her sellers and buyers

• Her ability to put in the detailed prep work required at the onset of a listing to help ensure the success of its sale at an optimal selling price

Andrea’s love of the business and the agents she worked alongside of, coupled with her experience serving on the Board of Directors for the Lakeland Association of Realtors and for Stellar MLS, the third largest MLS in the United States, led Jan Bellamy to approach her in 2016 about taking over the 12-agent franchise. In her first year at the helm, she added another eight agents and continued working on her leadership skills, crediting the teachings of John Maxwell and Patrick Lencioni, as well as the mentorship of retired Lakelander Dave Ramsey. She is committed to her agents and is relentless in her pursuit of excellence – always looking to improve her skills and those of her agents.

Jan’s son Jake Bellamy, broker associate and one of the property managers for

Andrea Dockery and Jake Bellamy
“[She] has established a culture of success and integrity at the office… and she’s turned down agents that don’t meet our culture, that don’t meet our professionalism.”

RE/MAX Experts, said Andrea’s strong business background and emphasis on growth have played a key role in taking what his mom looked at as more of a “boutique” agency and helped her grow it into the No. 2 producing real estate agency in Lakeland in terms of total annual sales.

“When it comes to real estate you get all sorts…from housewives to former professionals and executives, and people who might even just dabble in it and sell a couple here and there… but Andrea comes from a business background and has a driven mentality and is very growth driven,” he says. “[She] has established a culture of success and integrity at the office…and she’s turned down agents that don’t meet our culture, that don’t meet our professionalism.”

Andrea’s next surprise came in January 2023—in the form of a phone call from Adam Smith, who at the time was an agent with Coldwell Banker in St. Petersburg. He told Andrea he was building his Signature Group Team in St. Pete, was looking for a fresh start, and some of his colleagues talked glowingly about her leadership abilities, having seen her in action on a number of boards and committees.

Adam’s buy-in started a domino effect that ended in five new team agents for Dockery’s business and the start of the franchise’s team location in St. Petersburg. Following his team’s arrival, another team of four and seven individual agents joined the Lakeland office in 2023.

That same year, Tony Fridovich, a longtime Lakeland real estate stalwart and the Broker & Owner of the RE/MAX Paramount Properties franchise, started pitching the idea of merging operations with Andrea.

"A home is the biggest asset most people have outside of their retirement plan—and in some cases it is their retirement plan."

“At face value, Tony and Andrea looked quite different,” Carl says. “But they approached the key philosophical thoughts about the real estate business, their agents, and their operations very much the same —it was pretty impressive.”

Tony—who actually hired Jan Bellamy when she moved to Lakeland, before she established herself in the local market, and eventually went off on her own—jokes that after 30 years, he “is tired of learning,” and combining with Andrea’s agency made good sense because it meant adding his experienced team to Andrea’s veteran team.

“I wanted to do what was right for my agents and keep this ball rolling,” he says. “And she’s smart, she has a financial background and business background, and her husband has a good business background.”

It took time to work out the logistics and determine a long-term office for the combined entity—which in June will be a 7,500 square foot state-of-the-art office at 439 South Florida Ave.—but when the ink dried, Andrea had officially gone from a first-time real estate agent in 2012 to the broker and owner of a brokerage firm with nearly 60 agents in just over a decade.

As skilled as Andrea is at investing in real estate, she is equally passionate about reinvesting back into her hometown.

RE/MAX Experts hosts an annual teddy bear drive for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to provide stuffed animals to children who have experienced trauma.

Dockery is also a supporter of kidsPACK, several of her agents support Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine and RE/MAX gives back to Lighthouse Ministries, among other philanthropic endeavors. Dockery is a member of the South Lakeland Rotary Club, following in the footsteps of her father who was a charter member of Rotary.

Dockery is elated to have the global RE/MAX brand and all of its resources as the wind for her sails. It’s fun to be part of an iconic company where even 5-year-olds worldwide can pick the red, white, and

blue balloon logo out of a crowd, but it’s far more important to be part of a culture of excellence that the real estate giant has built in its 51 years of existence.

“Everybody recognizes RE/MAX agents are career professionals because we rarely have rookies,” Andrea says. “We appeal to agents who are already established and ask the question, ‘How do I take my business to the next level?’ That’s our sweet spot.”

Sweet it has indeed been for Dockery.

From 2008 when the brokerage firm totaled $17 million in sales— to 2023 where the firm had grown to $144.9 million in sales volume, she has transformed the company.

She has always approached real estate with the utmost seriousness, because as she says, “a home is the biggest asset most people have outside of their retirement plan—and in some cases it is their retirement plan.” But sometimes a lot of hard-earned serious conversations can turn into a cause for celebration.

In February, when Andrea was presenting her agents with their 2023 awards, she herself was unexpectedly presented with the RE/MAX 2023 Broker of the Year for the State of Florida.

Then in March, Andrea attended the RE/MAX R4 Convention, where thousands of RE/MAX agents and brokers from all over the globe descend on Las Vegas for the annual event. Just as a full day was winding down for her, and Dockery was working with one of her agents to solve a problematic transaction, Dockery received an unexpected call.

“The RE/MAX Southeast Region Director, Derrick Blackard, was on the phone asking me, ‘Hey, are you coming to the awards?’ Then came an urgent text from Franchise Consultant Mark Kershner asking her the same. It’s like 10 minutes until [it begins] I am told, just come on down.” As she approaches the ballroom, people are grabbing her by both arms, taking her shoulder bag from her, propelling her to the backstage stairs where she hears someone say: “Amy (Lessinger, President of RE/MAX LLC) is giving out the first award now; you are number three.”



Agents at RE/MAX Experts have, on average, 16 years of experience.

And on that stage, on the opposite side of the country from where 12 years ago she had been driving past houses her friends might like, she accepted the award given to the top single owned RE/MAX franchise out of more than 3,700 in the United States.

“I was shell shocked…I am still blown away by it,” she says. “The group I work with is just a tremendous group of Realtors and staff—it’s not just me. It’s all of them.”

Carl smiles proudly as his wife recalls the moment, saying he had a “quiet optimism” that Andrea could achieve this level of success.

The couple, both Southwest Middle School attendees, whose families on occasion would cross paths at the old Lakeland Yacht & Country Club in their younger years, found each other in their mid 30’s and have built a beautiful story together. Likewise, Andrea found real estate as a second career of sorts and has been more successful than many real estate lifers ever are. It’s quite a story, but it shouldn’t be that surprising.

YOUR LOCAL EXPERTS 4110 Florida Ave S #110
Florida is growing by just over 1,000 persons per day, and Polk County is growing by more than 80 residents every 24 hours.

When you sit and talk to someone like Gary Ralston, Managing Director and Partner for SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler, —who meticulously keeps track of and analyzes the Florida market—you realize we are both part of something special and something with its own unique challenges here in Lakeland.

The data shows the fastest growing industries in Polk County in the past year have been:




Historical data from the last five years also paint a picture of a community growing quicker than originally projected (hello COVID-19 effect) meaning that tax dollars, infrastructure upgrades and strategic plans have a difficult time keeping pace, even when done in earnest.

The good news is Lakeland is filled with visionaries who are committed to the well-being of their neighbors, and who thankfully are in positions of influence where they can help bring clarity and decisive action that can direct Lakeland's growth now and for the foreseeable future.

It's a challenge that there is plenty of public opinion—and hopefully public involvement, as well—surrounding, but these men and women aren't afraid to do the hard work of identifying solutions it takes to keep Lakeland growing in a positive direction that generations to come can be proud of.



Currently serves on the boards for Lakeland Economic Development Council, Polk Vision, Florida Hospital Association and WEDU/PBS

anielle Drummond is sharp-witted. When asked what magazine she would most love to be in, she instantaneously quips, “The Lakelander.”

You can tell she’s used to explaining complex things in more simple terms the way she talks with her hands and works to tie in local examples to broader answers.

And the 46-year-old has been leading the development and growth of Lakeland Regional Health since 2021 as President and CEO of what has bloomed into one of the largest hospitals in Florida and the second largest employer in Polk County. She is deeply involved in the community, including as a board member with the Lakeland Economic Development Council, Polk Vision, Florida Hospital Association and WEDU/PBS.


How does LRH create solutions to meet the evolving needs of people, especially post-pandemic, in communities that continue to grow and have more people who need quality healthcare?



What are some of those markers that stand out to you as key developments of recent growth for Lakeland Regional Health?


The [Harrell Family] Center for Behavioral Wellness clearly has been one of our biggest investments over the last three years. The opening of that facility provided so much more access to that very much needed behavioral health service in our community. We've seen just amazing growth on both the inpatient and the outpatient side. So again, we know we needed the ability to be able to provide more of those inpatient services to our patients, but really our hope is that by growing and expanding access to outpatient services, that hopefully we'll be able to get people connected with providers earlier in their journey so that they are able to live their best life and have their best possible outcome. I think that has been fundamental.

"In a community that's growing as rapidly as ours, that has required us to constantly evaluate, ‘What are those needs, and how do we best meet them?'"

At Lakeland Regional Health, we are constantly trying to ensure that patients can conveniently access our services and that we have the service offerings that they're looking for. In a community that's growing as rapidly as ours, that has required us to constantly evaluate, ‘What are those needs, and how do we best meet them?'


With that in mind, we've been hiring physicians and adding various services that we know our community is seeking. We want to make sure that there is good access to those services at our current locations…we know the community is growing in its geographical footprint, we need to make sure that we also are growing in those various areas, where we know new residents are deciding to live. With that has come a lot of new projects for us and new locations that we've never been in before. So I think really for us over the last three years, it has been growing and expanding, not only in the service offerings we have, but in the locations around the community where we provide those offerings.

At the same time, we recently launched our graduate medical education (GME) residency program. We now have a number of new sites of service to not only house the residents as part of their training programs, but also to have our faculty physicians be able to see those patients in a variety of settings. That was really what led us to open our new Kathleen campus in the fall of 2023. We also have a number of LRH specialists that are part of the LRH physician group, which has been a large growing division within our organization, as well as urgent care. We have seen that there are a lot of patients, as new individuals come into the community, who may not have yet established with a physician. We’ve been growing and expanding our footprint in the surrounding communities. Plant City and Lake Wales are two of our newest locations, and our first ever freestanding emergency department will be opening in January of next year.



In the next three to five years, what are some of the things the public will see rolled out through LRH?


We're really excited about opening our first freestanding emergency department. I think our emergency department at the main campus has a wonderful reputation in taking care of both the adults and the children in our community. We're really looking forward to being able to extend that reach and have a much more convenient location for the residents of South Lakeland to be able to come for those emergency services. So that'll be great to have that open in early 2025. Beyond that, we'll continue to look at other locations where we feel it would be beneficial for community members to have easier access both to our emergency services as well as our urgent care services. We'll be constantly adding on in our physician group as well; new sites for primary care providers, physical therapy—those things that we've identified where there's just not as good of access as we would like to see in our community today.


Do you see it as LRH's job to inform, engage and educate community members in a way where they understand the partnership that you're trying to offer them, and if so, how do you do that well?


Clearly healthcare is complex, and often it's not top of mind unless you are using it or just recently had an experience. The more that we can do to try to have easier access to try to facilitate how patients can make those connections with us—be it scheduling an appointment, be it coming to one of our urgent care locations or emergency department—that remains a very high priority and focus for us.

One of the other things we've been doing in a much more significant way as of late is be out with our community health outreach division. We enlist many of our 7,600 team members that we have to help support those events. For instance, we’ve been at Bonnet Springs Park holding events on bike safety for children where we provide education, bike helmets…whatever we can do to try and help them be the healthiest possible and enjoy all this community has to offer. We also can make sure that they know how to connect with the health system, be it LRH or wherever their health provider may be, so that they can make sure that they stay on track for those things that are important [for their health.]

Scan to read the rest of our conversation with Danielle

"By growing and expanding access to outpatient their best life and have their
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Worthington Decker has served on numerous boards, councils and committees across Polk County over the years.



"We all love our area for certain reasons and other people are going to love our area for a lot of those same reasons, right? ... We cannot be in denial and just shut the doors to Florida or Polk County."

Ifyou sit with Katie Worthington Decker for more than five minutes you will realize she is lively, she is motivated and she believes that Lakeland’s finest future is one where more people are actively using their gifts instead of just talking about what could be done better. She’s also not afraid to admit that the mantra of her generation was seemingly “we are never coming back to Polk County” after high school graduation—and just maybe, time and reality has proven that mantra comical, especially because it’s her job to help recruit people to come and stay in Lakeland.

She jokes that many of her friends, especially in the PR world that she was familiar with in previous roles with Clark Nikdel Powell and as the President/CEO of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, always talked about going to places like Austin, Texas or New York City to fulfill their dreams. But she has heard on numerous occasions that people chasing those dreams sometimes end up in singular roles that can be repetitive, while she came back to Polk County and had the opportunity to develop a well-rounded repertoire of skills.

“I was working with people buying ads, and we were working with photographers. I was doing video, I was doing media buying, and I was doing photo shoots and hiring models,” she recalls. “I was getting this breadth of experience in this really tertiary market where I got to build a portfolio.”

And now, the daughter of Terry Worthington, former President of the United Way of Central Florida, is helping build the city’s portfolio of businessmen and women through development projects, as well as programs, such as the Summer Leadership Program.


Whenever you think of the idea of smart growth or intentional growth, what does that look like for Lakeland from your vantage point at the EDC?

I think we have to not be in denial that people are going to move to our area. We all love our area for certain reasons and other people are going to love our area for a lot of those same reasons, right? Our central location, our relative affordability, [being] pro business, both from a state perspective as well as from a local perspective. We love job creation and we certainly love high-skill, high-wage job creation. So we are going to be attractive. We cannot be in denial and just shut the doors to Florida or Polk County. So using a word you just said, intentionality around how we grow is really important, and also realizing where the strengths and weaknesses of our infrastructure is in that. Traffic is people's biggest concern…what are the mechanisms that we can be doing to address that? And part of that is roads and infrastructure and concrete and things of that nature. Part of its datadriven light timing, what's our roadway network look like, that sort of thing. I think just being as proactive as we can be in a situation where we've been made to be a little reactive. And what I mean by that is we were experiencing percentages of growth every year, and then COVID happened, and that growth accelerated at a much greater pace than even the accelerated growth that was being projected. We just have to be honest and get after it and figure out how to creatively finance, leveraging whatever resources are available.


To your point, I think a lot of times it is infrastructure people are complaining about or saying isn’t necessarily helping their quality of life. What are some things infrastructure wise specifically that the EDC working on right now?



I would say we work very closely with the city of Lakeland for sure. And we highly value the relationship with the city of Lakeland, and we have an incredibly talented and passionate team in many of the department heads over there. I would say road infrastructure is very important; I would say wastewater infrastructure, which is not the sexy thing to talk about, but everybody wants to be able to flush a toilet.

When I go to speak to Kiwanis or [Rotary clubs] or groups, I often talk about the need for density. And people don't like that word, but they also don't like sprawl because sprawl is taking greenfield and creating neighborhoods and all of that. You have to have a mix in inventory in housing and residential and office and mixed-use.

But when you look at somewhere like a downtown or even some of the” fake” downtowns in Florida building mixed-use communities, it lessens traffic in those areas because if you rent downtown and work at Publix, you're not moving your car during the day. And now that you can walk to the bodega and get some food and your favorite third space—your bar or your restaurant that you hang out with your kids, your friends or whoever—is within walking distance, you're not moving your car. So when we talk about the need for more multi-family close to the downtown core, that's what we mean. If we get more people living close to where they live life then you start to reduce the need to drive—it’s that live-work-play mentality.


I think our communities are at our finest when more people are understanding and are willing to not just listen, but to be involved in healthy civic engagement. How do you recommend, especially for the younger generation, that people get involved in the development of the city?


First and foremost, they have to pay attention. (The City of) Lakeland in particular is very good about transparency in terms of every single meeting is livestreamed. So if you have any sort of interest, whether it's historic preservation or—this does not sound sexy at all, but I get super excited about planning and zoning— that's where everything is going through any sort of planning mechanism. So you're wondering about the Chick-fil-A? It's going through P and Z…all that information is out there.

What I tell young people…is that Polk County is a community that is so thirsty for people to get involved at any age level that you can be in your early 20s and raise your hand and say, “I'm interested in X,” and there probably is a committee that you could serve on, or a nonprofit you could volunteer for or a Steve Scruggs of the world that will sit down and talk to you about it.

That's what my career entirely was made of. In the beginning…I moved back to Polk County and I was like, where are all the other young people? I don't see them. I had people that said, “Why don't you join the chamber and meet people there?” And then we formed a young professionals group and we started to draw people out. And then the Lakeland Young Professionals Group…then we all made friends with each other and so you started to bridge a lot of divides and open a lot of doors for young people to serve in the community in different capacities.


Talk a little bit about what types of industries and what kind of jobs the EDC is working to bring here to diversify and strengthen the portfolio of options for people in our city?



So if we go all the way back in the day, obviously you had [agriculture], you had tourism and you had phosphate. And those industries were all struggling in the late 80s. So when Steve [Scruggs] came into the role at the EDC in 1987, the directive was pretty clear from the leaders of the business community: we have to diversify our economy because all three of our major industries are struggling. That's when the business community really got together and said, let's look at our location and let's leverage our location, which is why logistics and distribution obviously became a big part of that narrative. The beauty of that is it brought in a lot of different kinds of industry to help to diversify our economy and then the industries that supported those industries. I would say now the focus has pivoted to manufacturing.

The reason we like manufacturing is because that equipment is expensive and it's heavy and it's hard to pick up and move. So if you get manufacturers into the market, they're much less likely to leave. It's not as easy to pull up a multi-million dollar piece of manufacturing equipment as it is racks. We love our logistics and distribution—they're an incredibly important part of our market.

We really push hard to get our groups to say, 'What do we want and how can we attract them to come here? How can we send a message that you're welcome here and we want you?' Corporate headquarters are obviously huge—high-skill, high-wage. One of the big things we’re working on now is… how can we support the growth of jobs in the sectors that will help support the graduates of Florida Poly and Polk State and Southeastern and Florida Southern and Kaiser and all of our colleges and universities? But in particular, when you look at the growth of robotics, AI, and autonomous vehicles, we have a school teaching people with those skill sets and to [retain] them we have to have jobs that they can go into. That's gonna be a key focus for us going forward. So as we meet the new president [of Florida Polytechnic University Dr. G. Devin Stephenson] and we hear what his goals are, that will be one focus.

In aviation and aerospace we have an amazing team at the Lakeland International Airport. Most people don't even understand the economic impact, the number of employees already out at the airport. There's like 68 businesses on the airport campus— a crazy takeaway. I’m coming off the high of SUN ‘n FUN. I mean, there's just nothing cooler, frankly, than that week in our town. Kris Hallstrand and Adam Lunn, in their collaborations with Gene at SUN ‘n FUN and Eric Crump—that team out there is very economically minded and they're very ROI focused for the community…and one of the cool things at the airport is that they're able to leverage a lot of dollars that aren't tax dollars to make the airport what it is. We get a lot because they're very skillful leveraging state and federal dollars to get what we need at the airport.

I think we'll see a lot of growth in additive and subtractive manufacturing, like 3D printing, and just a lot of cool things in that aerospace sector, which I'm super excited about.

Scan to read the rest of our conversation with Katie

"The reason we like manufacturing is because that equipment is expensive and it's heavy and it's hard to pick up and move."

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you're not somebody's son or somebody's brother, or somebody's nephew, getting those introductions and getting plugged in is harder."

Cory and Baron Realty have played a major role in the development of the Historic Dixieland area of Lakeland, and made numerous other longterm investments.


ome might know Cory as the son of Tom Petcoff, co-founder of the highly successful Summit Workers Comp Insurance group, and the founder of Baron Realty.

Some might know Cory as the owner of a family-owned commercial brokerage and property management firm that oversees more than 1.4 million square feet of real estate space.

Some might know Cory as a proud Lakeland High School graduate who has served on and continues to serve on so many local boards and councils that you could forgive him if showed up at the wrong meeting at the wrong time on occasion.

At his core, the 46-year-old wants to create as many opportunities for Lakelanders as possible while attempting to balance the needs and wants of a diverse and growing population.

“My dad came from a very modest upbringing,” Petcoff reflects. “Yet he had a philosophy of respecting every single person, and would get righteously angry if he saw someone disrespect a person based on their background or their economic status.”


You serve on and have served on many local boards. What are some of the commonalities you find whenever you're talking about everything from mental health to private education to economic development? What do you see as some of the common threads that run throughout our community?


All of them have been just an awesome opportunity to meet people I wouldn't have otherwise and get a deeper exposure into organizations that serve this community in ways I didn't know. You wouldn’t know they serve the city how they do without interacting with them specifically.

You use the word “community” but I think it is relationship; in all of those organizations I think that there's a relationship between the nonprofits, the donors and the folks that are serving them. There's a relationship between the recipients of the folks and the caregivers or the recipients of the services and the caregivers. I think that is Lakeland's strength—our relationships.


What are some challenges you see from your perspective being engaged in all those areas?


It was actually pointed out to me by someone else recently…because I am blinded to it. I'm a lifelong learner. I grew up here and I run into a lot of people I went to high school with… someone pointed out to me recently that it's not as easy as we grow—it's harder for new people to get plugged into the community. So when you're not somebody's son or somebody's brother, or somebody's nephew, getting those introductions and getting plugged in is harder. That is a challenge that I was unaware of, just because I take it for granted. I think that there are some places where for newcomers it is harder to get plugged in.


What have you learned that works in Central Florida in this market, in terms of not only building partnerships and getting developments going, but just also keeping people happy and satisfied?


Not to sound boastful, but I think it's just relational intelligence. I have to put my mind in the mindset of an owner when I am negotiating with an owner, and I have to put my mind in the mindset of a tenant when I'm working on a lease to get them started up. Finding the spot where both of them are served well is generally where deals get done.



In the last couple years, has there been a sector that you are focused on more or where you see the opportunity for growth that you're really pinpointing?


I love our downtown—it's beautiful to begin with; the historic buildings when you walk down Kentucky Avenue and the trees opening up into Munn Park. And there's been a lot of growth in services. We're attracting more and more restaurants.

We're working on a development right now that's gonna bring a cool restaurant downtown on Main Street right between Black & Brew and Linksters….that God willing will move in late this summer. Chris Cleghorn and Ryan Neil run Sābu Ramen in The Joinery. Ryan is a really gifted chef, and Chris is kind of the business manager of the restaurant entity. They are gonna put in a high-end ramen spot and elevate it dramatically. It'll have prices similar to Nineteen61, and, they can describe the concept better than I can…but it's a highly elevated Japanese cuisine that is almost as if you took a tapas restaurant and put a Japanese spin on it.

Editor’s note: The name of the restaurant will be Hakucho.


The conversation kind of goes like this about growth, especially in a city like ours, “I like the small town feel” or “I like what we had” and then you also have people saying, “I wish we were more aggressive” or “I wish we had this and that.” As you lead Baron Realty, how do you recognize that tension and address it as you help the city grow?


If it is possible, to a fault, I'm almost too content. If we were growing 40 percent a year, I'd be happy; if we were flat I would find things to celebrate in that. But I am sensitive to the people that say, “I liked Lakeland when we had 90,000 residents instead of the 125,000 today." Yeah, traffic is a byproduct of growth—we're gonna have it. You go into any major metro area and they have traffic. When I hear negative comments I like to kind of balance them because the easiest way to become more content and more satisfied with our city is to hear someone come from out of town. People always come from out of town and ask me, “Do people seriously complain about traffic here? I can get from one end of town to the other in 20 minutes. That's nothing compared to where I came from.” So invite a friend from out of town here, have 'em spend a weekend and they'll tell you all the wonderful things about our community.

"Invite a friend from out of town here, have 'em spend a weekend and they'll tell you all the wonderful things about our community"

Scan to read the rest of our conversation with Cory



Phillip Walker has been firmly ingrained in Lakeland so long that when he was a young boy Publix stores had donut shops in them instead of full-service bakeries. He served as a Lakeland police officer early on in his career and then pivoted to a career in insurance, where he was the principal of a local Allstate for nearly 27 years.

He served as a Lakeland City Commissioner for 12 years and ran an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Florida House in the 2022 election.

The Kathleen High School graduate rarely meets a stranger and is down to talk about everything from the French classes he took at Kathleen High to the outfit you are wearing to the nuts and bolts of the local economy.

In 2023, the Chamber of Commerce created a position for Walker that leans into his plethora of business and civic experiences, as well as his love for people.

As the Vice President of Partnerships and Research, the 70-year old leads initiatives that help the underserved and minority business communities, while keeping his heart and hands in the development of Lakeland as a whole.

"I think it's important that we have representation that mirrors our community."


What do you can currently see as the primary strengths and weaknesses of Lakeland's economy?


Well, strengths are we have done very well to have some corporate centers here. How can we forget about Publix? You can't say anything about Lakeland without Publix. Others have done very well, even the medical profession. We're talking about Lakeland Regional Health and Watson Clinic…and we’ve got Orlando Health and Advent Health coming into our community.

For weaknesses, I would say we still have to do our part to make sure we get the talent they need. In our school system…I was [recently] hearing the challenges and even success stories from [Superintendent] Dr. Heid about how well our schools are doing, but we need to make sure we have the talent to make that happen.

I think our trade (schools) are good, as well as our academies…but do we advertise that well? Do people really know that we have these particular academies in our school system to support everybody? Because not everybody’s going to go to college, but there are trades they can pick up and do very well with and make good money; look at electricians and plumbers and air conditioning people.


Much of your life’s work has been advocating for diversity, inclusion and equity. What progress are you most proud to see that has taken place in the city in regards to the work you have been a part of? And then, what challenges are still most prevalent in our communities today?


I'm glad to see how we have embraced diversity, equity and inclusion. Some of the, I guess, negative kinds of comments that you hear—how that particular subject has taken a sort of a bad hit— should not be the case. I tell folks, we all play in the

"...we don’t want to entrench upon communities that have been there for years."

sand together, and unless I understand where you come from…at least we have that dialogue to understand one another and how we can make the place where we do live, work and play wholesome and then welcoming. You can't do that without inclusion…and if we’re still going to want to have this separate and that separate, it’s never going to work.

I think we've done our part here. Of course being off the city commission for a little over a year…[we were] making sure that we do that, and we addressed challenges that we saw and made sure when we had problems we could say something.

I think it's important that we have representation that mirrors the community. Unfortunately—please don't take this as a negative when I say this—when I look at my [city] commission, I don't see that, when I look at my county commission I don't see that, when I look at my state representation, I don't see that. Well, what can we do? Do we have people who will fit the mold…or have the things that we need to have to make sure they can serve in these different positions? I think we have that, it's just that sometimes I say, do we really want it?


Many people are talking about how Downtown West is primed for growth. You have talked publicly in the past about growth without gentrification. How do you believe government officials and private individuals and entities can best accomplish this?


I would say it’s important to make sure we have conversations. I did say that, I guess, in one part of my closing comments to my former (city commission) colleagues: we don’t want to entrench upon communities that have been there for years. You have folks who live in those homes that have been…the center of that community. I would say that I thought what was done with Bonnet Springs Park [was great.] I can remember when that community was pretty much one of the black communities….as a young lad I can recall it was called Robinson Corners, and now of course the name is Crescent Heights, but there are still black families there. The [Bonnet Springs investors and developers] did their part to talk to those particular residents…and it brought about a more wholesome relationship, and I think we need to do that with Downtown West. Let’s have some conversations.


What is your advice to young people about getting involved in the community to make a difference?


Scan to read the rest of our conversation with Phillip

I think it's gonna take young people to do it. First of all… we need to make sure our young people know about this community. If you want to get involved and find out what's going on in Lakeland, I tell folks two calendars you need to go look at: the Chamber calendar and the City of Lakeland calendar. When folks tell me sometimes, especially the younger ones, there is nothing to do, I say, “Where do you live?” Because I think if you check both of those calendars and see what's going on, you find interesting things happening, and young people can get involved because they can join different boards and committees to get involved with the city and what's going on in our community.

- Special Thanks to Bryelle Walters for your contribution

"Standing on the airfield, it never gets old watching the [Boeing 767] come in and out."

Amazon Air is an active part of the Lakeland community, including being active in the Lakeland Economic Development Council, CFDC and philanthropic endeavors.


After graduating from Florida Southern College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in 2013, Lakeland native Joseph Burton found considering top MBA programs to be a frustrating undertaking. During college he spent his summers as an intern for locally-headquartered Global Produce Sales where he managed farms and packing houses across the Southeast for the premiere watermelon grower. By the time he graduated he had paired his book smarts with common sense business acumen—and during his summer employment he also met his wife Brianna, who now works as a recruiter at Amazon. But he learned many top-rated business schools were looking for two consecutive years of related experience, which he did not have.

So Burton updated his LinkedIn profile and started to engage in online conversations with industry leaders, including employees at one of the global trailblazers in e-commerce and technology.

Those employees worked for Amazon, and funny enough, one of them was so impressed with his field experience that he referred him to a recruiter. Fast forward to where Burton was sitting in front of a general manager for Amazon in Lexington, Ky. as part of the interview process.

“He was holding my resume in his hands, and he said ‘I see you’re from Lakeland. I imagine you want to go launch the site there?’” the now 33-year-old recalls. “I said, ‘I would love to, but

my understanding is the building’s not going to be done for several years,’ and he told me it was actually going to be done in about nine months.”

So in 2014, after extensive training at the Amazon facility in San Antonio, Tex., Burton became an Area Manager for the first-ever Amazon location in Florida, in the same town he attended Cleveland Court Elementary, Southwest Middle School and Lakeland High School.

He has held a total of seven different positions for a company that is so colossal that it is the secondlargest private employer in the United States, yet it is also so personal that people often point up in the sky at the white and blue Amazon Air jets— wondering if the goods they ordered online might be a step closer to hitting their doorstep or mailbox.

Joseph is humble about his role as Assistant General Manager for Amazon Air’s Lakeland operation, noting time and again how the company has invested in him.

It’s a full circle experience for Joseph, who as a youth would attend week-long flight and aviation summer camps at Lakeland International Airport, which included a flight around Central Florida that culminated at the airport.

“I’m very much a sponge, and there’s just so much to learn, and I was constantly wanting to learn so it was a perfect fit,” Burton says about his journey with Amazon. “There's so much that needed to be learned at the time as we scaled operations as a company, and we needed people that wanted to dive in and learn the technical leadership and the people leadership pieces.”


What was it like to realize that you're in your backyard working for a global giant and you're managing a large team of people? Did you just kind of put your head down and learn and just go with it, or were there moments where you're like, ‘Wow, this is pretty incredible?’


I think it’s all of the above. I mean, you're supported every step of the way.

Back then and now, I don't want to say they're two different companies, but just the growth, if you look at the number of sites across the U.S. 10 years ago versus today, it's completely different. And a company doesn't scale to that size at that speed without supporting its people.

I had some people that were really invested in my development and my growth, and I had some people that saw where my strengths are and pushed me toward succeeding through those strengths. I'm really grateful to have those people over the years.


How do you, in a company that has everything planned out and strategically organized, sometimes down to the second—take the time to get to know your employees to build relationships that are good, healthy work relationships, so that way you can work well together?

"People always want to ask about the technology... but make no mistake about it— it is a people-first company."


Whenever people find out I work for Amazon, what do they typically think of first? People always want to ask about the technology—things that are new to them, foreign to them. But make no mistake about it—it is a people-first company. We have over [1,000] employees out at the airport, and we don't do anything if those folks don't show up for us. We've got a great workforce, we've got a great associate team from all over Central Florida, and there's not a single package that gets moved without 'em. So what I always tell people is, you're gonna win or lose by your team.

I don’t remember where I picked it up from, but it’s called the Ford Principle—getting to know someone, getting to talk to someone, it’s about Family-Occupation-RecreationDreams. Those are the things when you’re trying to get to know a new employee. As area managers you may be on the ship dock for nine months, but then maybe for the next 12 months you move to [packaging]. As you get a new team that you need to learn…you need to know their names, you need to know which of their kids play T-ball and have a game coming up this weekend—and then the next time you see them you ask how the game went. You're building relationships, you have to hold yourself to a high bar to get credibility and integrity with them.


Have you been in any of the ‘big blue planes’ so many of us see up in the skies locally?


I've been in and out of 'em weekly [when they land at the airport]. It never gets old, and I say that as an observer— standing on the airfield, it never gets old watching the aircraft come in and out.

It's so much different being able to actually stand there on the ground when a 767 is arriving into the gate and you're standing 20-30 feet from it. It just never gets old. It may sound kind of cliche, but engineering marvels... seeing something that big, a big flying hunk of metal through the sky, it's just incredible. We only started flying a little over 120 years ago, and we went to the moon within 70 years after that, and now we regularly use aircraft to get people their packages from Amazon faster.


How many flights does Amazon have coming in and out of the airport regularly, and how does that compare when operations in Lakeland first began?


We do 20 flights per day—10 in and 10 out. When we first started we just had one plane come in and go out per day. It was a slower start, but Amazon's strategy has always been to improve speed and selection for its customers.

Scan to read the rest of our conversation with Joseph

Vice chair of board of directors at Lakeland Economic Development Council
"It's pretty humbling when you’re responsible for a lot of people’s wellbeing…but then you realize you have a leadership team who are all really experts in what they do."

Nearly 1,100 associates work at the headquarters for Saddle Creek Logistics Services, which is located in Polk County.


Mark Cabrera spends most of his time creating a legacy and building on the legacy of others.

For example, he and his wife are nearly empty nesters after raising their five children—a legacy that will far outlive them both. Also, Mark is deeply aware and appreciative of the legacy of Saddle Creek Logistics Services founder David Lyons, a man he was inspired by as an understudy and who he tries to emulate as the leader of a burgeoning company.

When Mark came on board as Saddle Creek’s CFO in 2001, company revenue was around $80 million. Today, the company that Mark became CEO of in 2019, generates revenue of more than $1 billion per year, and the Lakeland-based corporate headquarters employs nearly 1,100 individuals.

“I always look at my role in two parts—the traditional CEO role, which of course, means building the company and building shareholder value, but I always tag onto that, extending the founder’s legacy,” he says. “It’s pretty humbling when you’re responsible for a lot of people’s wellbeing…but then you realize you have a leadership team who are all really experts in what

they do, and they are better than you are in those areas. As [former President Ronald] Reagan would say, you learn to trust, but verify.”


What are some things that you can share that Saddle Creek is working on, working through, and that people will recognize as opportunities coming here in the future?


I'd love to tell you there's some secret sauce. Really we've had nearly 60 years of steady growth, and a lot of that growth has just been organic. It's the simple basic thing: if we deliver excellent service to our clients we have the opportunity to add locations and add services. That's mostly how we've grown through our history. Then from time to time strategic acquisitions logically add on. One time we bought a secondary packaging company. We bought an e-commerce company in 2010; that's where we learned that business, and it's now 40 percent of what we do. And we bought a company in southern California that got us on the West coast and made us national. Anything that we can kind of bolt on strategically to a business, we'll look at it.


You are a business leader, and you've sat on and sit on many boards and many committees within our community. How do we get better at providing highpaying, high-skilled jobs?


We're up to 1,100 associates that work in Polk County. You're always going to have a nucleus of jobs of warehouse workers, warehouse associates, forklift operators, truck drivers. Where a lot of our growth comes from is really the support jobs that support our national growth. So HR, finance, sales and marketing—and then especially the technical jobs like IT and engineering. Because as a supply chain, the work that we do is actually getting more complex, it requires more robust systems. It requires solutions that actually have to be designed and implemented and then have to be carried out. So that really drives the need for higher-level talent, especially engineering and IT and operations talent, that understands how to operate in that environment. It's a much more complex and different environment than, say, when I started 20-plus years ago.

Many of the jobs within the warehouse also require a higher-level skill set because as you bring on more automation, you're automating some of those lower-level, more physical tasks.

"I don't know if supply chain is sexy or not, but certainly the level of investment that's being made in our industry—the number of new robotic and automation entrances into the market—is staggering."


How do you describe to people how Saddle Creek is kind of intimately woven into the fabric of our lives?


A lot of people didn't know about supply chains until the pandemic—and rightly or wrongly, now they do. At a simplistic level, we connect people with products. Whether it's food and beverage, footwear, apparel, health and beauty aids, consumer packaged goods...we're storing it in our warehouses, we're picking orders for retailers and individual consumers. Sometimes it is delivered on our trucks, and sometimes we arrange the transportation— so we're involved in it in all those facets. And then here locally, people probably don't realize that we feed the local grocery distribution network. Lastly, in terms of Lakeland…we have a lot of people that live here, work here and take pride in being involved in the community. Giving back is a big part of our culture and the legacy that David Lyons left.


When it comes to new technology, what do you see and what is your position on anything from AI to robotics to other emerging technologies?


I don't know if supply chain is sexy or not, but certainly the level of investment that’s being made in our industry—the number of new robotics and automation entrances into the market—is staggering. We actually now have an Engineering and Innovation team… that focuses entirely on what's out in the market and then helping us place bets on where to get the best results. One of the misconceptions is that people talk about automation as if it's something that's going to fix everything kind of en masse. In baseball parlance, it’s like there's some big home run out there. What we’ve found is it's really about stringing together a lot of singles, and those are all specialized areas where you're trying to solve a problem.

It's autonomous forklifts, autonomous floor scrubbers, robotic arms that unload cases...all those kinds of things that save some manual labor. The upside...there are really two parts to it. There's the increased productivity that you're obviously going for, but a lot of these things make associates' jobs better because you're eliminating tasks that are either repetitive or strenuous…long distance walking and those sorts of things.

The one technology we've deployed a lot of are autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). These are robots that carry products back and forth to an area. Instead of an associate having to walk those distances, they stay in an area and either pick product or replenish, and the robots go back and forth. It's a very simple idea, but it generates a lot of productivity and it makes work more enjoyable for associates.

Scan to read the rest of our conversation with Mark




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rying to define “smart” growth locally or correctly guessing what the next three to five years is going to look like in the country’s fastest growing county is a lot like trying to predict what might happen if a couple of Lakeland icons invited an established developer of urban high-rises from Brooklyn, New York to a languishing industrial city to talk shop and build bridges— metaphorically, of course.

Yet earlier this year, Mayor Bill Mutz and Steve Scruggs, President of the Lakeland Economic Development Council (LEDC), could be found navigating 15-passenger vans through Pittsburgh with more than 20 individuals from many walks of business and from different backgrounds who are tied together by an ardent devotion to seeing Lakeland flourish exponentially, while staying true to its roots.

One of the attendees on the LEDC-hosted City Visit tour to the Steel City was 37-year-old Shlomo Sinay, a devout Hasidic Jew and principled businessman who owns Murex Enterprises, alongside his brother David—and someone who has vivid dreams of redefining the multifamily home market in Lakeland even though he had never stepped foot in the Swan City until 2021.

Maybe what growth is going to eventually look like is impossible to say with perfect clarity, but the journey of Sinay and the opening of the Welcome Canary complex earlier this year offers us glimpses of the beauty and complexity of living in a city where more people are moving to than ever before.

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After nearly 20 years in real estate development—primarily rehabilitating old city dwellings and constructing high-rises in very defined spaces with inflexible regulations— Shlomo and David decided to take time during the uncertainty of the pandemic to conceive a strategy that would allow them to build something “with more purpose that could add something to humanity.”

So they traveled across the country, visiting Arizona, Texas and Ohio before landing in Tampa to come visit a city Shlomo didn’t really know what to expect from, but that he had talked about with Eran Yaniv, a key investor in his business. Some parts of Lakeland are more naturally appealing and attractive for aesthetic and infrastructure reasons, plus some business advisors who Sinay trusts encouraged him to look at places like Plant City, Bartow or Polk City because there was more land, and potentially greater financial incentives for investors.

“But once I started going downtown, just talking to people and then going to Publix and seeing the lakes and starting to understand the culture, that’s when I called Eli Nachman and said, ‘You’ve got to come see it and see if you feel the same.’”

Data indicates many people do feel the same. Recent numbers provided to The Lakelander from Gary Ralston, managing director and partner for SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate, show more than 22 percent of U.S. population

The Sinay brothers, David (left) and Shlomo (right) have brought their years of real estate development experience in Brooklyn to Lakeland to offer people lifestyle living options in multi-family complexes.

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Shlomo Sinay and Mayor Bill Mutz converse inside one of the homes at Welcome Canary. Sinay says he consulted with Mutz on some of the amenities that the complex would include, trusting Mutz knows Lakelanders well.

“What I loved about Shlomo, beyond just good planning, is his heart..."

Mayor Bill Mutz

growth is happening in Florida, and more than 80 people are moving to Polk County every day.

Mayor Mutz says “we have to grow—there’s not an alternative,” and we have to seize the moment by finding creative and sustainable ways to grow wisely by: understanding fiscal restraints, understanding everybody’s roles in development, building good relationships and then matching those relationships with the right opportunities.

Sinay made the decision to seize the moment for his company, scooping up a handful of vacant properties to hopefully build a brand that becomes synonymous with creating communities focused on people’s overall wellbeing. He owns a plot of land about half the size of Welcome Canary just minutes from the new complex that could be prime for around 90 units, he has plans for a two-phase development of more than 400 units off Old Medulla Rd. in South Lakeland and he has property in North Lakeland as well.


As Sinay was sizing up parcels to purchase in Lakeland and developing blueprints for creating outdoor sanctuaries within the context of multi-family apartment complexes, he was also being observed closely, as are any new developers to the area.

Valerie Ferrell, Lakeland CRA Manager for the city of Lakeland—whose primary job is to work with businesses, developers and property managers in Dixieland, Downtown and Midtown to improve residents quality of life—puts it this way: “It’s really about finding the right partners that want to achieve the same goals as we do, and they want to bring…those missing destinations or missing components that we might not have yet in Lakeland,” she says. “It’s really about finding ways to make a welcoming city, not just for the people moving here, but for the partners we seek to find investment here. It’s really all a balancing act.”

Sinay readily admits he takes a “New York state of mind” with him everywhere he goes, and every “No” he hears gets re-translated in his mind as “Try harder” or “Try something different.”

Early on he fell in love with the swans and the palm trees, but once he was able to meet with local leadership about the possibility of constructing his dream, he was captivated for a different reason.

Sitting at the table with key players in the development of the city he was able to detect a

constant resolve to develop the city in a way that is sustainable and smart for as many people as possible.

“They would say, ‘You can have the growth process we envision, but not necessarily the growth you are talking about the way you see it,’” he says. “They would say that it’s important to listen to people, but don’t make decisions out of emotions… we have a comprehensive plan to help with that.”

On the recent trip to Pittsburgh, Sinay was impressed to see how Lakeland City Manager Shawn Sherrouse has a crystal clear understanding of the challenges Lakeland faces and has plans to attack them winsomely.

“You can tell he knows what the answers are, and is trying to find a middle way that makes sense for everyone in Lakeland. That was very impressive,” he says.

Mayor Mutz smiles wide when asked about Sinay, acknowledging the two have developed a strong friendship as they have navigated the challenges and opportunities of developing more housing for Lakelanders.

“What I loved about Shlomo, beyond just good planning, is his heart—you knew he was looking to match with a city in a location that would understand him well, and he found it here,” Mutz says. “I would tell you the relationship that Shlomo, Steve Scruggs and I had really was formative…in giving him confidence in Lakeland that then allowed him to overlook other larger cities where he could do this.”

David Sinay enjoys the grand opening with one of his biggest supporters, his 13-year-old daughter Chaya Suri. She is very driven, artistic and humble—following closely in her father's footsteps.

FEBRUARY 22, 2024, David and Shlomo Sinay help Mayor Bill Mutz cut the ribbon at the grand opening celebration of Welcome Canary. Amy Wiggins, President/CEO of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and Steve Scruggs, President of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, joined in the festivities.

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“You should love being home. It should be a respite from stress, from everything else."
Shlomo Sinay

Another aspect of Lakeland that made Shlomo feel right at home was discovering the Chabad Jewish Center of Lakeland, a local branch of a global movement dedicated to providing services and community to Jewish people around the world.

Sinay wears customary Hasidic Jewish apparel, prays at three appointed times each day and seems unafraid of failure, as he often says, “If it is meant to be, it will be.”

One challenge he encountered early on in the process of committing to developing in Lakeland was finding Kosher food. He would have to travel to Tampa or Orlando regularly and his schedule would often be confined by those limited options.

All that changed when Sinay was connected with Rabbi Moshe Lazaros and Libby Lazaros, the couple who direct the Chabad Jewish Center of Lakeland.

Libby prepares Kosher meals for Shlomo nearly every time he visits, and the couple has invited him into their home on numerous occasions. The Lazaros also hail from Brooklyn, and their organization provides everything from Hebrew school to synagogue services to holiday celebrations and more.

“When I met them and learned I could get Kosher food right here in Lakeland, it made my experience so much more whole,” Sinay says.


Even well thought out, expertly planned growth and development is uneven, at best. You’re dealing with aging infrastructure, pieces of property with different zoning restrictions and dreams and blueprints that sometimes don’t jive seamlessly with stated land uses. Simply put, the city can’t greenlight anything it so desires and developers can’t just take blank slates and create magic.


Just ask Shlomo.

He wanted to come in and build the largest complex and make the biggest splash possible. But he had to do so within the confines of what was available on the property of Welcome Canary, located just off of Old Tampa Highway. That’s where things like 100 year old sewage lines become important facets of conversations about our future.

“We have lines that are 100 years old….I’m 70 and I remember how long ago that was,” Mutz says with a chuckle, “So we now have [plans for] capacities we didn’t build for…and the challenges are wanting to make sure we don’t over promise and then under deliver.”

Upgrading the capacity of a large sewage line from archaic 6-inch piping to modern 8-or 10-inch piping can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Sinay had to adjust his expectations and work within the confines of building on land that is not in the core of the city, but Mutz said it is also a reminder of the importance of helping the community atlarge understand the investments of time and money required to usher in the next wave of growth.

“The LEDC does the majority of the work on the frontend to really align future partners—and that is Yeoman’s work to do when you’re talking about potential employers, housing, the fact they are then advocates for what concessions the city could consider…” Mutz says. “And then it’s the city’s responsibility to deliver the goods…and this has to happen out of taxpayer funds.”

The process to go from dream to reality can be cumbersome, but Sinay likes what he sees from rubbing shoulders and being in meetings with other growth minded Lakelanders enough that he’s all in— working to set himself apart from other multi-unit home developers, and positioning himself alongside the decision makers to help them see the urgency of planning for changes that sometimes feel like they are coming fast and furious.

Sinay sings the praises of many city staffers who play integral roles in community development, including Brian Rewis (Director of Community and Economic Development), Teresa Maio (Assistant Director of Community Development), Chuck Barmby (Planning and Transportation Manager) and Matthew Lyons (Executive Planner for development review and zoning).

“They understand what Lakeland is all about and are there every step of the way to assist you,” he says.


A few weeks after their hands-on master class on economic development in Pittsburgh, Sinay and Mayor Mutz are once again together, but this time away from the hustle and bustle of the city spending time with those more precious to them than any newfangled project.

Sinay and his 6-year old son, Mordechai—the youngest of Sinay and his wife Faiga’s five children—and Mutz and his 4-year-old granddaughter, Eisley, are fishing together off a bridge with the red-hot Florida sun bearing down on them. They are surrounded by nine acres of carefully crafted tranquility that makes up the 160-unit Welcome Canary complex that opened earlier this year.

“You should love being home. It should be a respite from stress, from everything else,” Sinay said, describing

Shlomo Sinay enjoyed celebrating the grand opening with his family, including his 17-year-old daughter Surala.

how they designed the complex to feel like a retreat when you come home at the end of a long day. Inside, residents enjoy amenities like a gym, wellness center, a zen den with infrared light therapy, and cozy community lounge areas. Outdoors features include a sculpted pool, running trail, hammocks, a community bonfire and vegetable garden, and docks on the pond.

The units all have private entrances and individual patios or balconies that look directly out onto all of the luxuries afforded to residents of this lifestyle living centered complex.

There are two and three bedroom units, and as Mutz says, Sinay “thought inside the box instead of outside the box” by essentially building the facility with an all encompassing court-yard style feel that draws people in and toward each other.

“The houses are the frame of the canvas,” Sinay says. “The amenities are the painting inside it.”

As the two successful entrepreneurs and dedicated family men cast a line with their young ones, the camaraderie is clear. Although Mutz and his family have made an indistinguishable impact on Lakeland for nearly three decades, and Sinay has only been a part-time Lakelander for several years, there is a beautiful synergy that goes far beyond what good planning and zoning meetings alone can accomplish.

“The first thing I want to do when I see Shlomo is give him a hug…just as part of our friendship and my appreciation for him,” Mutz says. “I love the representation of the fabric of who we are as a city that it represents the desire to be a community that appreciates a broad spectrum of values, honors, creeds, etc. and embraces them as equal partners in everything we do.”

And likewise, as Ferrell states, multi-family housing might not be for everybody, but neither is the often-touted “American dream” of single home ownership.

“Everyone has a different view of what [the American dream] looks like now and they may want urban apartment living or a condo or a townhome versus having a home with home insurance and a lawn to mow and all the responsibility of maintenance,” she says. “We have to offer more options…everything from affordable options for any income range to the higher end townhomes, condos, etc.”


It’s easy to think of individuals and corporations invested in the growth of cities like Lakeland are more like power brokers, often with the clout, money and/or influence needed to drive change, but Lakeland isn’t just another geographical location, it is a place thousands of families and individuals proudly call home.

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“The homes are the frame of the canvas, and the amenities are the painting.”
Shlomo Sinay

That’s why Mutz says we are part of what he considers an anomaly, a city where the types of people who were in one of the 15-passenger vans he was driving in Pittsburgh are all-in, shoulderto-shoulder to do the hard work it takes to help our community grow efficiently and effectively.

“This is not a hierarchy city,” he says. “This is a public servant [kind of city] where people like us and organizations like the LEDC do the grinding work of getting done what needs to get done.”

Success is never guaranteed, and Sinay admits he would like to see some of the development-minded movers and shakers be a little more aggressive at times, but for now he’s just tickled to have his first of what he hopes are many housing project open and to be part of a city that not only does he respect, but that he appreciates welcoming him to be a part of.

“I’m trying to custom tailor a product that a Lakelander will love, and if they give it a chance, they will understand what this is,” he says. “We’re not developers coming in looking to change what Lakeland is, we’re just enhancing what it already has.”

Oftentimes it’s easy to forget to pause and celebrate an accomplishment like opening a multi-family housing complex more than 1,100 miles from home, in a city you hadn’t heard of three years prior. But Sinay’s oldest child, 17-year-old Surala, helped him fully appreciate the moment.

She flew down to Lakeland for an extravagant grand opening celebration on the grounds of Welcome Canary on February 22 that included high-end Kosher fare, live music, entertainment, victory cigars and more. She vividly remembers riding around the site on a tractor when it was nothing but piles of dirt, and now, her dad—who had told his kids the story of his first real estate venture, where he and his brother put in months of manual labor to flip a home back in the early 2000s—was the center of attention because of a innovative style of apartment living that he dreamed of and then went out and made happen.

“Right before I got there I texted my dad, and I was telling him I was proud of him and good luck with his talk, see you soon, I love you,” she recalls. “And he texted back, and it said, ‘I love you, too. Remember, you mean more to me than all you will see tonight.’”

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“We’re not developers coming in looking to change what Lakeland is, we’re just enhancing what it already has.”
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