NewsHillsborough County


Plant City developer, former mayor recounts growth of 'Norman Rockwell-esque' town

Plant City Hillsboro Bank
Posted at 5:48 AM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 07:45:01-05

For many, coming to the Strawberry Festival may be the only time they venture into Plant City. But the history here is rich, just like the soil citrus and blueberries grow from.

"I’m one of those guys that grew up in plant city," John Dicks said.

When Dicks was a kid you could find him running around his dad's downtown hardware store. Next thing you know, he's running the city as mayor.

"I had the privilege of doing that for three years," he said.

Dicks says while in office, the goal was always growth.

"When we adopted the language that says our brand is embracing the future because we see what is coming," Dicks said. "But also preserving the past."'

"We still have a slice of Norman Rockwell-esque, kind of a feel," Ed Verner said.

Verner grew up in Lakeland, but moved to Plant City after college in 1984.

"I fell in love with citrus," Verner said. "Even though the industry was dying at that time for us in this area, I just loved it."

By the 90s, what was left of the bustling downtown Dicks has grown up in had fallen into disrepair.

"They just thought the only thing this building should do is be torn down or catch fire. And the sooner the better," Verner said.

Verner just knew he had to fix it.

"This building just sang like a canary to me," Verner said. "And everybody else in town swore up and down, I was crazy."

Verner's love for fixer-uppers transformed the Lee Building, the Harrell-Mann building just next door, then the Young & Moody building. They all take up large chunks of downtown Plant City.

"Once I had it, it was like a tiger by the tail. I couldn't let it go," Verner said.

Soon enough, others realized Plant City could be a power player on the I-4 corridor.

"We could see that growth was going to be coming our way. So we had the vision to plan for it," Dicks said.

But that didn't come without a few bumps in the road.

"We've had several large pieces of property that sort of wound up in the ownership of people far, far, far away, who really don't know what they own," Verner said. "Then they try to develop it and they discover that, ‘Oh, gee whiz it’s a 150-acre peat bog in the middle of it,' that we all knew about."

Dicks and his former vice mayor who's now the current mayor, Rick Lott, both sit on boards within Plan Hillsborough, which gives them a seat at the table to make sure this small city is included in the big picture.

"We have new housing that is developing and taking root right now. But we also have things like our new hospital, which is going to be a world-class facility right on that intersection there at Park Road and I-4," Dicks said.

So whether you drive into Plant City to hang out at the Photo Archives, check out the McIntosh Preserve or drive down once a year for the Strawberry Festival, Verner wants you to know you're in a one-of-a-kind town.

"They're not making towns like us anymore. They don't know how," he said.