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Lakeland Downtown Development Authority: Helping Develop the Heart of the City

By Elizabeth R. Elstien

Downtown is the heart of every city. That's why when downtown Lakeland declined in the 1970s, the State of Florida created Lakeland Downtown Development Authority (LDDA) to work on redevelopment and become an advocate for downtown and its investors. LDDA lobbies the City to make physical improvements according to a plan that both parties adopt.

LDDA is a special taxing district, explains Executive Director Julie Townsend, "so funds collected must be spent within the boundaries of the district. But that does not mean that the good it does is restricted to those same boundaries. By improving downtown, we make the entire city better."

Creation of the Downtown Farmers Curb Market, held each Saturday, is a coup for the LDDA. City streets are blocked off to vehicle traffic and transformed into a pedestrian place where artisans, crafters and farmers sell their goods to locals and visitors alike. "It has grown significantly in the past 10 years, and is truly a place for community and local commerce to thrive," Townsend proudly says. "It just makes you feel good when you walk among the vendors and run into neighbors and friends."

Throughout its history the organization has played a role in bringing businesses and both residential and commercial investors into the area. According to recent Zillow.com statistics, Lakeland home values have increased 6.3 percent in the past 12 months and are predicted to go up 2.7 percent within the next year. Combine those figures with its 97 percent occupancy rate and Lakeland is a good place to own a home.

Townsend explains: "Certainly Lakeland's desirability continues to increase. The cost of living here is low, relatively speaking, and the public amenities are very high. The city has the finest parks and public spaces in Florida. In fact, the Lake Mirror Park was named in the Top 10 Places in America list."

There is lots to do here, too. Catch some baseball at the Detroit Tigers spring training grounds or listen to the Imperial Symphony Orchestra. Over 40,000 auto fans flock to the Lake Mirror Auto Classic for its display of more than 650 show vehicles. Held on mother's day weekend, Mayfaire-by-the-Lake is one of the largest and oldest outdoor art festivals in Central Florida making the Best 200 Art Shows list put out by Sunshine Artist magazine. There is also First Friday, Food Truck Rally, Holiday Walkabout and Music on the Promenade, along with many other free community events.

Without bringing in businesses that keep people continually shopping, dining and drinking downtown, Lakeland would not be thriving today. The LDDA plays a large part in helping all kinds of employers move, start or maintain their ventures downtown. The city finally has its first brewery, as well as independent restaurants, art studios, coffee houses and bakeries and will soon have an affordable bike sharing program. Townsend tells us, "One of the things that makes Lakeland such a special place is all of the small businesses that create the fabric of the community."

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