In Florida, Polk County’s economy seen as key in presidential race

Builders started to manicure this patch of land in the middle of Florida, creating cookie-cutter houses flanked by cypress trees and laying down pavement for roads and driveways. Then they abruptly stopped, leaving a half-built community where red “available” signs sit in octagonal windows and rough patches of grass grow where homes were supposed to be.

“You want to hear about our failed community?” asked Josiane Jones, 57, who bought a house in the Hampton Hills development four years ago, and saw her home’s price plummet as developers abruptly stopped building. “This was considered one of the most desirable places to live.”

It’s not just this development that has been abandoned. A nearby movie theater has been closed, and the mall a few blocks away is plagued by empty big-box stores and the ghosts of retailers that have gone belly up. Drive down Florida Avenue through the middle of Lakeland and it seems that every other commercial building has an “available” or “for lease” sign in the window — but for the fast-food restaurants and gas stations.

This is the ground where much of the state’s presidential contest will be conducted in advance of the Jan. 31 primary and the general election. It lies along the Interstate 4 corridor in a region that houses both everyday families the candidates court and many of the state’s 2 million independent voters.

Polk County was the only one of four along the key segment of I-4 that President Obama didn’t win in 2008. Mitt Romney played to the region’s concerns with his first Florida ad, released Monday, that excoriated Newt Gingrich for earning more than $1 million from mortgage giant Freddie Mac “while Florida families lost everything.”


“In this area, you get the middle-class and family-type voters,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa. “Those type of families are important to tell how Florida is going to go, and how the nation will.”

An inland area halfway between Orlando on the east side of Florida and Tampa on the west, Polk County was one of the fastest-growing regions in the state over the last decade, as families and retirees priced out of the coast moved inland in search of cheaper real estate. Its population grew 24% from 2000 to 2010, faster than the state as a whole, according to census data.

But when the economy crashed, so did Polk. People lost jobs and couldn’t pay mortgages; near-retirees who had planned to move to the region saw their investments plunge and held off on retirement. Inland Florida, like California’s Inland Empire, was left to bear the brunt of the economic slowdown, without attractions such as sand, sea or amusement parks that could still draw tourists or wealthy home buyers.

“There was a real housing boom taking place here in the middle of the decade, and we all know what’s happened to the housing market,” said Gordon Kettle, a professor of economics at Polk State College. “We’ve really felt the pain.”

The situation in inland Florida suggests the campaign discussion will be very much centered on the economy. The Polk County unemployment rate is 10.7%, and the county has the fifth-highest suburban poverty rate in the nation, just behind Fresno, according to a 2010 report from the Brookings Institute. About a third of Polk County households with children under 18 don’t have enough income to provide them adequate food, according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center.

The housing market remains in a slump. Home prices fell 11% in December, compared with a year earlier, while in coastal areas such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables prices rose from the previous year. Builders pulled just 89 single-family home permits in Polk County in September 2011; in the same month in 2005, they pulled a record 1,692 permits. About half of homeowners in Polk County owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

“We’re just trying to stick it out. We don’t want to lose our home,” said Nija Thomas, who lives across the road from the Hampton Hills development in another planned community decimated by the housing downturn. A majority of the single-family homes in her development are rented, rather than owned, and foreclosures have befallen many of her neighbors.

Thomas is a nurse by training, but is working part time doing taxes, since she hasn’t been able to find a job in her field. The value of her home has fallen 33% to $130,000 since she bought it, so she can’t move for work unless she wants to sell her home at a loss. She fears there won’t be any buyers, though, in a region where people can snap up foreclosed homes on the cheap.

“There isn’t any other choice but to stick around,” she said.

Though Thomas says she would vote for Obama no matter what, economists say that many residents of the I-4 corridor are independents, and their vote will depend very much on economics.

There are signs of slight improvement. Legoland just opened a new park in nearby Winter Haven, which could draw tourists and tax dollars. Publix, one of the nation’s largest supermarkets, still employs thousands, and there’s a hearty demand for citrus, one of the region’s biggest crops.

But the pace of the recovery is slower than in many parts of the country, and that could determine Florida’s political fate. Current polls show Obama neck in neck with both Romney and Rick Santorum. If recovery comes fast to Polk County, Obama could benefit, MacManus said.

“Every time employment ticks up, presidential approval ticks up a little bit too,” she said.

Still, many Polk County voters say they’re too wrapped up in keeping their families afloat to care about politics. They include Charlene and Eric Vasquez, who moved to Lakeland from Miami for the cheaper cost of living. Though they pay only $975 monthly for a four-bedroom house, both are unemployed, and they have to resort to yard sales to make money.

“It’s tough. We live week by week,” said Charlene Vasquez, who was organizing boxes in her garage on a balmy winter evening. “It’s hard to find a job that pays enough.”

They’ve lived in three separate houses in the development, forced from the first two when the owners lost them to foreclosure. They say their neighborhood is still suffering foreclosures, and they don’t see much reason for hope.

“I haven’t seen much change,” Eric Vasquez said. “There’s a moving truck here every weekend.”