“Quality of life, including parks and recreation, is attractive to millennials and Generation Z and valued higher than previous generations.”
I love visiting a new restaurant or retail store in Lake County as much as anyone does. Driving along U.S. Highway 27 in South Lake or U.S. Highway 441/27 in Lady Lake, it’s easy to notice the uptick in commercial and residential growth. While it’s all very exciting, here’s what you need to know about the county’s effort to move from a housing and real estate value dependent economy to a more diversified economy centered on manufacturing, health care, and technology.
First, retail and restaurant growth is not necessarily indicative of good economic growth and diversification, at least as it relates to wage growth. In Lake County, the average wage is around $34,000. Retail and restaurant jobs often fall below that average.
Wage growth is important because it correlates to the creation of more wealth and prosperity. When a county’s average wage increases, property values and home ownership generally increase. People buy things and go out to eat. When wages are stagnant or decrease, home rentals often increase and property values stagnate.
Second, growing the manufacturing industry in Lake County is a marathon, not a sprint. There are some recent success stories, such as the building of the Coreslab Facility in Leesburg and CaptiveAire’s expansion at the Ford Commerce Park in Groveland. However, we continue as a largely housing-based economy based on retirees and residents who often work in a different county.
Third, Lake County has plenty of opportunity to grow manufacturing. More than 54 percent of the manufacturing workforce is over 45 years old and many actually live outside the county. As these skilled workers retire, this presents an opportunity for Lake County’s Generation Z (high schoolers) and millennials to stay home and get a good manufacturing job, and contribute to our community. Available workforce is critical to manufacturers when relocating or expanding.
Quality of life, including parks and recreation, is attractive to millennials and Generation Z who value it more than previous generations. Efforts to be “Real Florida, Real Close” and the cities’ efforts to preserve small-town charm should be attractive features to the next generation of manufacturing workers.
Fourth, Lake County and its cities are working hard to provide the infrastructure and land needed for manufacturing. This is evident as planning efforts such as the 470 Commerce Park in Leesburg and the Wellness Way Plan coming to fruition. The additional penny sales tax, recently approved overwhelmingly by voters, will go a long way to funding future infrastructure projects such as roads and storm water. Manufacturers want to see a community investing in its infrastructure.
Finally, education and workforce readiness is perhaps the biggest challenge to manufacturing growth in Lake County. The Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Eustis is a “game changer” because future workers receive training in skills specific to the industries growing in Lake County and in management and leadership skills such as Lean Six Sigma.
Our economy is slowly transitioning from housing to manufacturing and other industries. Average wages are on a steady incline. Let’s hope the recent commercial growth in retail and restaurants resulted from wage growth in the manufacturing, technology, and health care industries.
SEAN PARKS, LAKE COUNTY COMMISSIONER