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The changing future of Plant City and how the Strawberry Festival is the heartbeat

New development, new jobs, and a new look
Posted at 5:33 AM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 18:00:02-05

Pant City is a place I know personally.

This is my hometown.

I was raised here, went to high school here, and learned about life here. The good, the bad, and everything in between.

I conquered some of my childhood fears on the festival grounds — working up the courage to go on the big rides, from the super loop to the pirate ship.

But over these last few days, I spent some time here rediscovering the place I grew up in, and I found out the festival is far more than a symbol of Plant City.

It's the root of the town’s history, and it’s planting the seeds of an evolving future.

The festival celebrates the industry that gives the town life, its people purpose and drives the local economy.

But it all starts in the fields where farmers plant their dreams, their work and their struggle.

Plant City is a town so closely connected to the soil, many think it’s named after the plant itself.

But Plant City actually gets its name from the railroad tycoon, Henry Plant, who developed the west coast of Florida.

Once the town had the train, farmers had a way of delivering their product north.

And the Strawberry Festival was born.

Jennifer Morgan is a farmer’s daughter, who grew up on the fields and the festival.

“Eighty-six years ago there was a small group of framers that decided to host an event that celebrated the harvest that got them through some tough times,” she says.

She’s now one of the organizers of the Strawberry Festival, who took on the risk of putting on the event during a pandemic.

“It’s incredibly important for us this year to host this event for our city for the kids in that livestock arena, for the churches that come here that make money that gives back to their youth organizations," she said.

"We are blessed to have over 4,000 vendors, exhibitors that come here, and most of them Paul, a year ago this was their last festival that they were able to benefit from. Their livelihoods are at stake, so we would be remiss if we didn’t host this event for that purpose.”

The fruits of the festival extend far beyond the fields. It spills over into the town itself, which after years of talk and some setbacks along the way, is now finally starting to see new development, and some major projects are now ripening, seeding money right back into the city.

Jake Austin is the President of the Plant City Economic Development Corporation.

“You know Paul it’s really exciting what’s happening in Plant City," Austin said. "For many years if we were known for anything it was strawberries which we were very proud of and maybe the festival if we were lucky enough, but we have really kind of come into our own.”

He says in the past six years the city has announced over 50 new projects, closing in on a billion dollars in capital investment and creating 2,500 new jobs.

Those are new people working, living, and spending money in a town with easy access to Tampa and Orlando.

“Oddly enough that’s where our city got its roots, was from logistics from the railroads and agribusiness. And here we are in 2021 and it’s coming full circle and that’s what is making us who we are today,” says Austin

Perhaps none of the new buildings is more impressive than the new Corporate Headquarters for Wish Farms.

CEO Gary Wishnatzki gave us a tour of this Strawberry Palace that looks more like a Google office building with three floors and 20,000 square feet.

It's made of half glass and steel, half original wood from the property.

It has a slide from the second floor, and there’s even a treehouse meeting room designed by the "The Treehouse Guys." From the DIY network.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of dreams we’ve had over the last couple dozen years and it’s finally coming to fruition here,” says Wishnatzki

It’s a long way from where they started back in 1922.

Their last office? Two trailers. They used to hold their meetings in the local coffee shop.

Now their meeting rooms look like an office in Silicon Valley.

But it’s not just big companies investing in Plant City, small business owners are starting to put down roots as well.

Brandon Snyder is a restaurant owner who moved to Denver to launch his career, then to South Florida to learn the restaurant business.

But after his dad got sick, he came back home to take care of him and decided to stay.

“The way the community took care of me and my family after he was gone .. made me fall in love with the small town,” says Snyder.

Snyder’s opened not one but two new places, Roots Cellars and Roots Tap Room and Wine Bar.

“I never thought I was a small-town guy, I wanted to live in Denver, Las Vegas. But to be able to build something for the community that supports you, with your family surrounding you, is what made me do it here,” says Snyder.

When asked to look forward to what the city will be like in ten or 20 years, Jake Austin had this to say.

“Plant City will still have what makes us special, that small-town feel, but we’ll be evolving into something new," Austin said. "And hopefully attract people from all over the country, close to all the happenings of Tampa and Orlando but can come home to a place they feel warm and welcome, new opportunity, something you can’t find anywhere else.”

It all comes Full Circle back here to the Strawberry Festival, which attracts 600,000 visitors a year, $26 million in direct tourism spending and brings attention to Plant City.

And with its proximity and connection to Tampa, Lakeland, and Orlando the economic impact is felt not just here, but the entire Hillsborough County region.