Local News

Amazon centers in Ruskin, Lakeland could supply Highlands jobs

SEBRING - Internet retail giant Amazon.com confirmed Tuesday it will build two distribution centers in Lakeland and Ruskin, but don't apply today for those 2,000 new jobs today. "Even if their permits are fast-tracked," said Stephen Weeks, executive director of Highlands County Economic Development Commission, it would take 90 days just to be granted a permit to build the warehouses. "And if they're not doing a cookie-cutter building, that would be another 90 days minimum to engineer it. That's before they even break ground," Weeks said. Construction workers could be hired next year. When the buildings are finished, more workers would come in to set up machinery and equipment, Weeks suggested.
An Amazon news release did not mention when the facilities could be operational or the potential for other centers, but both centers are expected to be more than 1 million square feet. A Polk County facility near Interstate 4 will pack and ship, for instance, kayaks and televisions. The Hillsborough County center along I-75 will handle smaller items from books to electronics. Weeks said the average wage is $41,170. "That's 115 percent of the average wage of Polk County." There was no word about a rumored data center, which Weeks presumes will be close by. Weeks, who attended a state EDC boot camp in Okeechobee, thought Highlands County could compete for a branch data center. "We do have the infrastructure to support that. We will be following this story very closely." Each distribution center is expected to hire more than 1,000 employees. "We appreciate the state, city and county officials who have worked with us to bring these fulfillment centers to Florida," said Mike Roth, Amazon's vice president of North America operations for the Seattle-based company. "We're excited to join the community, bringing great jobs and investment to the area." Gov. Rick Scott's office announced in June that Amazon intended to expand into Florida and planned to hire more than 3,000 full-time workers. That would pump more than $300 million in investments into Florida by the end of 2016. In the Amazon release, Secretary of Commerce Gray Swoope called Tuesday's announcement "another vote of confidence in the state's business climate." Ruskin is 69 miles from Avon Park; Lakeland is 52 miles away, so Heartland Workforce Chief Executive Officer Donna Doubleday expects Highlands and Hardee county workers will apply for Amazon jobs when they become available. A U.S. Census survey shows 32.6 percent of Highlands County, 9.5 percent of Hardee and 8.5 percent of DeSoto workers already commute to work; 16.2 percent drive to Polk County, 6.9 percent to Charlotte, 6.8 percent to Hillsborough, 6.5 percent to Miami-Dade, 5.3 percent to Lee, and 4.6 percent are employed out of state. However, Doubleday said, "per my counterpart in Polk County, there is no information to share yet. They will be having meetings with EDO and business reps over the next several weeks to gather information and solidify plans. We hope to partner with Polk Works to help meet the needs of both the business and our qualified job seekers." News Service of Florida contributed to this report gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828