Polk County is strategically located in the center of the Florida peninsula, about equal distance from the east and west coast and half way between the Georgia-Florida border and the Southern tip of the peninsula. Polk lies on the Interstate-4 corridor, 25 miles east of Tampa and 35 miles southwest of Orlando. As the geographic center of Florida, it is estimated that more than 7.5 million people reside within a 100 mile radius of Polk County. This is one of the largest concentrations of population in the southeast.
Polk County became Florida's 39th county on February 8, 1861, when the State of Florida divided Hillsborough County into eastern and western halves. The eastern half was named Polk, in honor of the 11th President of the United States, James Knox Polk. Following the Civil War, the county commission established the county seat on 120 acres donated in the central part of the county. Bartow, the county seat, was named after Francis S. Bartow, a confederate Colonel from Georgia who was the first confederate officer to die in battle during the first battle of the Civil War. Col. Bartow was buried in Savannah, GA with military honors, and promoted posthumously to the rank of brigadier general. Fort Blount , as Bartow was then known, in a move to honor one of the first fallen heroes of the Confederacy, was one of several towns and counties in the South that changed their name to Bartow. The first courthouse built in Bartow was constructed in 1867. It was replaced twice, in 1884 and in 1908. As the third courthouse to stand on the site, the present structure houses the Polk County Historical Museum and Genealogical Library.
Polk County is larger than the state of Rhode Island and equal in size to Delaware. The total area of the county is approximately 2,010 square miles which makes it the fourth largest county in Florida, exceeded only by Dade, Palm Beach, and Collier counties. Polk County has 554 natural freshwater lakes which occupy approximately 135 square miles, or over seven percent of the total area of the county. The total land area of Polk County is approximately 1,875 square miles.
According to the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, Polk County's population grew 20.75 percent since the 2000 census, from 483,924 people on April 1, 2000, to an estimated 584,343 in 2009. This represents an average annual growth rate of 2.3 percent or an average annual increase of 11,158 persons. Polk ranks as the ninth most populous of Florida's of 67 counties. Polk contains roughly 3.1percent total Florida’s population. Polk's total population is expected to grow to an estimated 630,052 by 2015 and 675,408 by 2020.
Polk County's population in 2004 was estimated to be 528,389. In terms of numerical population change between 2000 and 2004, Polk ranked 12th in the state but ranked 32nd over this same period for percent of change (9.2%). Approximately 62.3 percent of Polk County's total population resides in the unincorporated area of the county. The other 37.7 percent of the population live in Polk County's 17 cities. Polk County's largest city is Lakeland, with a 2009 population of 94,163, followed by Winter Haven with a population of 34,464. Other municipalities include: Auburndale, Bartow, Davenport, Dundee, Eagle Lake, Fort Meade, Frostproof, Haines City, Highland Park, Hillcrest Heights, Lake Alfred, Lake Hamilton, Lake Wales, Mulberry, and Polk City.
The median age of Polk's population in 2008, was estimated to be 38.2 years old with 17.4 percent of the total population 65 years old or older. Persons under the age of eighteen represented 24.2 percent of the County's total population. In fact, population growth between 1990 and 2000 was primarily fueled by people in the age range of 35 to 54, which accounted for 43.6% of the entire increase over this period. There were approximately 93,000 students enrolled in Polk County's public schools (kindergarten through 12th grade) for the 2008-2009 school year.
For more information on Polk County's population and demographic data, go to:
Imperial Polk's Profile
Polk County's economy has been historically based on three primary industries: phosphate mining, agriculture and tourism.
The discovery of phosphate rock in the Peace River, near Fort Meade, Florida in 1881, initiated the mining of the world's largest deposit of phosphate rock, known as the “Bone Valley Deposit.” This deposit, which encompasses approximately 500,000 acres in Polk, Hillsborough, Hardee, and Manatee Counties, provides approximately 75 percent of the nation's phosphate supply and about 25 percent of the world supply. Approximately 200,000 acres or 15.3 percent of Polk County have been mined for phosphate rock. Polk continued to lead the state in 1998, with 14.7 million tons of phosphate rock mined. However, four straight years of low prices and weak demand for phosphate fertilizer led to a loss in sales in 2002. The industry's impact on the Polk County economy will continue to decline in the 21 st Century as phosphate mining moves south into Hardee and Desoto Counties. Chemical manufacturing plants located in Polk County are used to convert the insoluble phosphate rock into soluble products, such as diammonium phosphate and monoammonium phosphate, which are used in fertilizers and other products. There are numerous, other industries located in Polk County which support and rely on the phosphate mining industry. In October 2004, IMC Global, Inc. and Cargill Corp Nutrition merged and became Mosaic Co. This merger created the world's second largest fertilizer manufacturer with annual sales estimated at $4.5 billion. Mosaic employs more than 3,000 workers in Polk County at five active mines, Four Corners, Fort Green, Kingsford, South Fort Meade and Hookers Prairie; and fertilizer plants, Bartow, Green Bay, New Wales, and South Pierce. For more information on the phosphate industry please visit the FIPR
Polk County has the 2nd largest amount of farmland in the state with an estimated 626,634 acres in 2002. Polk remains the sixth most productive agricultural county in Florida . The $878 million citrus industry employs approximately 8,000 people in Polk County . Polk ranked first in the state for total citrus picked for the 2003-04 season with an estimated total of 42.2 million boxes harvested. Polk also ranked first in the state in the amount of commercial citrus groves with approximately 95,050 acres (2004 estimate). In addition to citrus, Polk was ranked third in the state in 2004, in number of beef cattle with an estimated 105,000 head of beef and dairy cattle, according to the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service. Total receipts from the sale of crops and livestock in Polk County rose to $284.8 million in 2002 based upon a report released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the U.S. Department of Commerce. For more information on citrus, please visit the Florida Citrus Mutual
Tourism is a strong economic force in Polk County and dates back to the dedication of Bok Tower Gardens in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge. In the mid-1930's, the late Dick Pope, Sr. established the world famous Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven , Florida's first theme attraction. Millions of people visit Polk County each year to enjoy these attractions as well as Fantasy of Flight, the Sun ‘n' Fun Air Museum, and many more. Polk County is also located within a one hour drive of the Walt Disney World resort area, Universal Studios, Sea World, and Busch Gardens . In addition to these attractions, Polk is the spring training headquarters for the Detroit Tigers ( Lakeland ) and the Cleveland Indians ( Winter Haven ) baseball teams. The county had an estimated total of 11,500 hotel, motel, rental condominium units and vacation rentals in 2004.
In recent years, Polk County has gained notoriety as a preferred venue for recreational and competitive sports on all levels. In 2001, the county hosted 140 sporting events that pumped in excess of $84 million into the local economy. This is in addition to $72 million generated by the Spring Training operations of the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers. Polk County Sports Marketing, the sports marketing arm of the Board of County Commissioners, was honored as Florida's “Sports Commission of the Year” by the Florida Sports Foundation for its success in promoting the county as a sports destination. For more information please visit the Polk County Sports Marketing.
Today, phosphate mining, agriculture and tourism still play vital roles in the local economy. However, the county has successfully expanded and diversified its economic base in recent years. The primary mission of the Central Florida Development Council (CFDC) since its formation in 1985 by the Board of County Commissioners, has been to improve the standard of living for the citizens of Polk County by diversifying the economy through job creation in all industries. The CFDC has successfully worked with other industries to help them expand and relocate to Polk County . Polk County's central location within the large Florida marketplace has attracted numerous manufacturers and distribution centers in recent years.
In the wake of housing meltdown and the serious recession facing the nation, the abrupt closing of Cypress Gardens in 2009 dealt a serious blow to an already struggling local economy. However, early this year Merlin Entertainments purchased Cypress Gardens with plans to convert the park into LEGOLAND Florida – by all accounts, this is considered great news for the local economy. LEGOLAND Florida is expected to open in late 2011 and will provide as many as 1,000 new jobs (700 full-time and 300 seasonal) and millions of dollars in tax revenue. An estimated 1.5 - 2 million visitors are expected to visit the park annually when completed. The company plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, creating positive economic impact for the local economy.
For more information on Polk County 's economy please visit the CFDC.
Cost of Living
According to the 2009 Florida Price Level Index, Polk County ranked below the state average in cost of living. The index is published annually by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR). Polk's 98.07 index indicates that the cost of living was 1.93 below the state average of 100.00 and Polk ranked 43rd out of Florida's 67 counties.
Though home prices have declined 30 % since the peak in 2006, one positive side effect is that homes are now much more affordable than at any other time in the past two decades. In fact, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/ Wells Fargo “Housing Opportunity Index” Polk County has become the 37th most affordable metro area in the country and is considered the 4th most affordable area in the South Region. At the state level Lakeland-Winter Haven MSA (Polk County) is the number one affordable metro area in Florida.
A relatively low cost of living and attractive tax rates make Polk County a good location to do business.
Polk County boasts the ninth largest labor force among all Florida counties. The rate of increase in the size of the labor force accelerated during the boom years for the same reasons that population growth exhibited similar patterns. A strong and improving economy attracted younger people to our area, and more people were entering the labor market. Polk County’s labor force benefited greatly during the housing boom of 2006. However, like the rest of the nation and the state of Florida, the county suffered immensely as a result of housing bust and subsequent recession.
The May 2010 figures indicate the estimated size labor force to be 276,695, with 243,546 employed and 33,149 unemployed. In January 2010, the unemployment rate reached its highest level in more than 26 years – 13.4%. However, the joblessness rate has edged slowly since then and was recorded at 12% in May 2010 year compared to 10.5% in 2009.
Despite the fact that the unemployment rate has risen sharply over the last year, the number of unemployed workers and the unemployment rate had decreased considerably since 1992 (11.3%) up until 2006 (3.6%), a trend largely attributable to the continuing diversification of the employment base in the local economy. The 2006 unemployment rate was the lowest on record since the record keeping began in 1990.
The number of unemployed persons is expected to remain elevated during the next couple of years, reflecting weakness in the residential construction and manufacturing sectors. While job growth has decreased in the more traditional goods-providing industries like manufacturing and mining, it has expanded in the service industries.
More than 23,000 people are currently employed in retail jobs in Polk County. Job growth in Polk County during the 1990s did not occur in the traditional industries. Instead, it began to mirror national trends which were more closely aligned with those in urbanized areas of Florida. This reflects a new emerging economy, from 1990 to 2000, with job growth concentrated in the services and retail industries.
Polk County has a number of public and private organizations that employ in excess of 1,000 workers. Many prominent companies are also headquartered in Polk County with operations across Florida and in surrounding states. The top non-government employers in Polk County with 1,000 employees or more include Publix Supermarkets, Wal-Mart, Lakeland Regional Medical Center, Mosaic, Winter Haven Hospital, Geico Insurance, State Farm Insurance, Watson Clinic, GC Services, and Florida's Natural Growers.
The 2003 average wage in Polk was $35,477, about 13.4% below the state average of $40,973. Between 1990 and 2000, diversification of Polk's economy helped increase the annual average wages by 44%. Between 2000 and 2009 the average annual wage has increased by more than 27% from $27,880 in 2000 to 35,477 in 2009 (inflation was about 24.5% over the same period).
Recreation and Leisure
Polk County contains a total of 4,303 acres of public parkland which is owned and managed by both the county and municipalities. The Board of County Commissioners owns and manages approximately 2,461 acres of this total parkland acreage. Lake Kissimmee State Park, which consist of 48,156 acres, is also located in Polk County . In addition to public parks, Polk has over 100,000 acres of pastoral lands open to the public for resource-based recreation such as fishing, boating, hunting, nature study, bird watching, and similar passive recreation pursuits. With 554 natural, freshwater lakes and numerous rivers and flooded phosphate pits, Polk County is a haven for the boating and fishing enthusiast. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that over 74,000 people fish Polk County's lakes annually. Pleasure boating is also a popular outdoor activity. According to the Polk County Tax Collector's Office, there were approximately 26,300 boats registered in Polk County as of June 30, 1999. Polk County owns and maintains 53 boat ramps and municipalities own an additional 34 boat ramps. Together, these boat ramps provide public access to 88 lakes. Polk County has long been recognized as the “Water Ski Capital of the World,” due in large measure to its hundreds of accessible fresh water lakes. For the golfing enthusiast, Polk has 32 public and 13 private golf courses located throughout the County.
For more information on Polk County 's parks and recreation opportunities click here.
A major portion of northern Polk County, approximately 220,000 acres, is known as the “Green Swamp.” For the past 30 years, this area has received considerable attention at local, regional, and state levels due to its importance as a significant water resource for the state. In 1978, the Florida Legislature designated the area, including 115,000 acres in Lake County, as an Area of Critical State Concern, pursuant to State Law (Section 380.05, Florida Statutes). This area is not a swamp in the typical sense – it is a series of wetlands, flat lands, and sand hills dispersed over a total area of some 850 square miles which support agriculture, wildlife habitat, conservation areas, and rural residential development. It is actually a high, poorly-drained plateau that acts as a water retention area which feeds several major rivers in the state, including the Peace, Withlacoochee, Oklawaha, and Hillsborough Rivers . In addition to feeding these major river systems, the Green Swamp also plays an important role in maintaining the vast fresh water supply of the Floridan Aquifer. For these reasons, Polk County has adopted special regulations for any development within this area. These regulations can be found in Chapter 5 of the Land Development Code and Appendix 2.132 of the Comprehensive Plan.
For more information on the Green Swamp click here.