Barnett School Hosts Successful Economic Forum

Nov 4, 2014

by Cary McMullen | Publications editor
More than 200 business, civic, and political leaders from Polk County gathered on Oct. 31 for the second annual Polk Real Estate and Economic Update forum sponsored by the Barney Barnett School of Business and Free Enterprise at Florida Southern. Titled “For the Love of Downtown 2,” the forum has gained in visibility and drew a notably larger audience from last year.

The forum featured a keynote address by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, a special recognition for Lakeland businessman and FSC Trustee Joe P. Ruthven, and reports about the current and future states of Polk County’s economy.

Mr. Baker’s address, “Building a World-class Downtown and a Seamless City,” drew on his experience as mayor of St. Petersburg from 2001 to 2010. He spoke about delivering public services, boosting public schools, the role of the arts, and smoothing relations between public and private sectors.

“Downtown is the heart of the city,” he said. “And if your heart is sick, it’s very hard for the patient to do well. Everybody thinks the city is theirs. They want to have pride in their downtown.”

Mr. Baker said the goal should be to create a “seamless” city in which some places are prosperous and others are blighted. He advocated improving economically depressed areas with the same attention and resources as the rest of the city.

“If you don’t lift the entire community at the same time, there will be imbalance, and you will have conflict that results from the imbalance and resentment that builds from the imbalance,” he said.

Mr. Ruthven, founder and co-owner of The Ruthvens commercial real estate company, was presented plaques from the Lakeland City Commission and the Polk County Commission commemorating his contributions to the business and civic life of the area. Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs ’86 called Mr. Ruthven one of Lakeland’s most influential ambassadors.

“He has an amazing ability to get things done. If you want something done in the City of Lakeland, you get Joe Ruthven on your side,” he said.

In brief remarks praising Mr. Ruthven, FSC President Anne Kerr called him “Lakeland’s hero” and noted that he had a key role in developing the College’s new Frank Lloyd Wright tourism center. FSC presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2007.

“I admire Joe Ruthven, and he has been a blessing to FSC, to me personally, and indeed to this community,” she said. “He has served as a mentor to many in this community who were inspired to follow his lead to make our region one of the most dynamic in the nation. His business success, civic leadership, example of honesty in all aspects of his life and work, his faith, love of family and care for others are worthy of emulation and recognition.”

Mr. Ruthven in accepting the recognitions, thanked city, county, and college officials, and returned the compliment to Dr. Kerr.

“She’s doing an outstanding job at Florida Southern,” he said.

Among the presentations at the forum, FSC business student Lexi Gauslow (pictured, right) and Southeastern University student Luana Peixoto, representing the Lakeland Collegiate Alliance, spoke about a project to bring college students and downtown businesses together. The project, Suit Up for First Friday, includes career networking opportunities prior to Lakeland’s monthly First Friday event and fun activities during the event itself. Gauslow and Peixoto asked the merchants and business owners to help make the project work.

“Great things going on are going on downtown, but students don’t know about them,” Gauslow said.