Image courtesy of Condor 36 via Adobe Stock
Fifty years ago, a journey to Davenport, FL would have led you past rows and rows of citrus trees. Oranges as far as the eye could see. The bright and fragrant smell from the Holly Hill Fruit Products Company would fill your nose as you traveled further into the country.
This scene is mere nostalgia today as diseases, floods, freezes, and foreign markets have carved up the once mighty citrus market in central Florida, leading growers to sell off much of the land they made a living on over the years. In 2004, when Holly Hill’s frozen concentrated orange juice processing business closed, what remained was a small piece of the overall citrus industry and an even smaller population in Davenport to support it. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Davenport’s population that year was 2,258 people, an 18-person jump from the previous year.
Then a funny thing happened in the 2010s. Florida’s 3rd (Tampa) and 4th (Orlando) most populated cities grew rapidly. Post-Great Recession, affordable housing prices (as compared to larger cities in the Northeast and South) and no state income tax drove people to those cities. U.S. Census data shows that Tampa’s population grew by nearly 15 percent from 2010-2021, which is now home to nearly 400,000 residents (over 3 million residents when counting the entire region). At the same time, Orlando grew by nearly 30 percent to over 300,000 residents (2.6 million people across its region). Both were among the fastest-growing cities during that time.
This type of growth has led to skyrocketing housing prices in both cities. Since March 2018, Tampa and Orlando have seen home value increases of 74.6 and 67.8 percent, respectively, according to Redfin. In response, people started looking for housing alternatives. And the city of Davenport was right there to capitalize on the opportunity.
It’s clear that location is a factor in Davenport’s growth. Aside from having access to Interstate 4 and U.S. 27, Davenport is 65 miles from Tampa and under 35 miles from Orlando. However, as the cost of living continues to rise in those cities, Davenport’s affordability appears to be the largest growth factor. Especially, for those building or purchasing new homes. “Basically, our impact fees are a lot cheaper than what you’d see in Orange, Osceola, or even Hillsborough counties”, said Kelly Callihan, Davenport’s city manager of the fees the county has charged developers to cover portions of the anticipated cost of the additional infrastructure and public facilities needed to support new development.
“So, a lot of folks are finding that it’s a $25,000-30,000 savings to live in this county (Polk) and in the Davenport area over where they would travel to work,” said Callihan.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, said Callihan. We have had to add staff throughout this whole process. In a short period of time, we’ve doubled in size. We started out with about 50 employees, and now we’re up to around 100.”
For Davenport, growing city staff has focused primarily on its police, fire, parks and recreation, and public works departments. They’ve also increased city hall staff in specialized areas including finance and city planning.
Along with increasing city staff, Davenport has invested heavily in building infrastructure to not only house and support new staff members but also to handle the sharp population increase. “Early on, when the growth first started, we built a brand-new sewer (wastewater) plant and right now it’s not big enough. So, we’re currently in the middle of building a 1 and 1/2 million-gallon plant just to try to keep up with what’s coming,” said Callihan.
Davenport’s sprint to meet the needs of an ever-expanding population also included building a second fire station. Additionally, a new headquarters for its police and building and planning departments are in the works. The building and planning department facility will house a new emergency operations center.
The increases in staff and physical infrastructure are not only supporting Davenport’s current growth but are aimed at securing a future in which Callihan expects the population to double again. “In the next five years, we see 30,000 to 35,000 residents living in the Davenport area.”
Not all of Davenport’s additions focus on public safety and operational growth. Several of their key projects are focused on quality-of-life initiatives to support an active population. In October of 2021, Davenport opened the Tom Fellows Community Center & Event Center, which is designed to host a variety of sports, recreation, and community events. The 40,000-square-foot facility also houses a fitness center, a computer room, and an arts and crafts room. The city is also home to Northeast Regional Park, a Polk County Parks and Recreation venue that opened in March 2022. The 83-acre, $5.6 million complex features six athletic fields, a playground, tennis, racquetball, and basketball courts, a boat ramp, a special events pavilion, picnic facilities, and a dog park. Additionally, Callihan said that they are in the process of adding four new baseball/softball diamonds as well as two long fields to Lewis Mathews Sports Complex.
In all, with the opening of Davenport’s wastewater plant, slated for completion in May of 2024, the city will have opened a new community center, fire station, police department, city hall, and several parks, all in a six-year span.
With new amenities comes the need for additional revenue to pay for it all. For the city of Davenport, the growth itself has coincided with increased national interest in moving to Central Florida and a burgeoning housing market. “Well, our home values have just exploded. Almost like the population growth chart with a huge incline”, said Callihan. “And with impact fees for our utilities, we’ve been able to keep up with some of that growth.”
According to Zillow, the average home price in Davenport is $365,176 in March 2023. This is up from $278,774 during the same period in 2021. The increase in home values has led to an increase in tax revenue, according to Callihan.
Callihan believes that the growth of Davenport will only continue. However, he and other city officials see one major bottleneck. “Transportation has definitely got to catch up.”
The nearby Orlando area is notorious for morning gridlock. Davenport is experiencing similar issues. Not only has the over 150-percent population increase put a strain on Davenport’s roads, but the area has also become a hotspot for travelers to Disney World and other local theme parks due to its proximity. Disney World is 15.2 miles away. According to research from BestPlaces.net, 56 percent of Davenport’s commuters drive at least 30 minutes to work daily with half of that group driving at least 45 minutes to work. For perspective, the average commute time in Miami (Florida’s largest city) is 26.4 minutes.
To combat this, Callihan said that the city is conducting studies that may lead to the expansion of several two-lane roads. Additionally, a study is being conducted to determine the feasibility of extending SunRail, Central Florida’s public commuter rail system, from south of Orlando into Polk County with a stop in Davenport.
Davenport has come a long way since the days when orange groves dominated its landscape. While many of those orange trees are gone, Davenport’s is blossoming with new faces and a bevy of new real estate development and recreational amenities. And while growing 163.2 percent in five years has its benefits (a larger tax base and increases in property values), managing this growth can be a tremendous challenge. New growth must be met with a focused effort to make life functional and inspiring for new and longtime residents. And it’s not all about headline-grabbing amenities like new parks and shopping centers.
Through Callihan and the city’s focus on operational needs like building a wastewater plant, increasing their police and fire departments, and hiring planning staff, they’ve enhanced Davenport’s ability to handle their current growth and position the city as an attractive target for new growth. And while Davenport’s future may not include oranges, this effort may lead to a sunny outcome for the former citrus outpost.