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Retailers Are Racing To Build Warehouses In Polk County

Amazon Warehouse Picker
A worker picks items at an Amazon fufillment center. The online retailer says it will hire 500 workers for its new facility in Polk County

All the stuff you order online started its journey to your front door at a warehouse. And in the Tampa Bay region, there’s a good chance that warehouse is in Polk County. Polk is ground zero in a distribution center boom. And despite the economic crash, it’s a trend that’s likely to continue.  

Amazon announced late last year it would build a one million square foot distribution center in Auburndale, just off Interstate 4. “The walls are up. They're going great guns. They can’t open soon enough,” Auburndale Mayor Tim Pospichal said in a recent interview. He welcomes the growth and has a theory as to why Polk County has become a warehouse hotspot.  

“Like almost every city in Florida during history, it all had to do with citrus,” he said. “And a lot of land now is becoming available because the groves are going away.” 

For decades, Polk County has been the top citrus-producing county in Florida. And it’s still an important part of the economy. But in the last decade, the industry has battled greening disease, imported fruit, and changing consumer tastes. County leaders saw an opportunity to cash in on Polk’s location, between Tampa and Orlando.  

“It’s combination of two things,” said Kris Courier, Vice President at commercial real estate firm CBRE. “It's having the appropriate labor force. But the main thing is access to population. You can access over 10 million people with 100 miles. There aren't a lot of places across the country that can claim that.” 

The Auburndale warehouse will be Amazon’s second in Polk County. And the company is opening an air cargo hub at the Lakeland airport. Courier says the pandemic is accelerating the shift to shopping at home and Polk County’s economy will benefit.   

“I think there's a lot of people that maybe resisted it, but now been forced to take a hard look at it, and all of a sudden are realizing it's pretty darn easy and you can get access to a lot of things maybe they didn't even know were available,” he said. 

It’s a change Auburndale Mayor Pospichal has seen himself. “I own a small mobile home RV park. And I'm averaging three or four prime trucks come into my park almost a day. Never happened before,” he said.  

IKEA, Pepsi, Walmart and dozens of other companies have opened warehouses in Polk County in the last couple of years.  

Amazon announced in March it would hire more than 4,700 workers to handle increased demand at its existing distribution centers in Florida. But the company has also come under scrutiny for how it treats employees. Some have protested, asking for better protective gear and paid sick leave. 

In Polk County, residents like Megan Powell are frustrated. She’s part of a Facebook group for warehouse opponents.  She’s concerned about the long-term effects of building a massive distribution center in a rural community. 

“Polk County is booming, but is it is it for the right reasons or for greed?” she said. “We also live here, and we have to function here and you can see all the trucks that are coming off the highway right now. We miss this simple life.” 

Still, Powell does like that Amazon is bringing jobs to Auburndale. That warehouse under construction will see 500 workers handling  furniture and other large items when it opens next year.  

Bradley George was a Morning Edition host and reporter at WUSF until March 2022.
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