© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You Count on Us, We Count on You: Donate to WUSF to support free, accessible journalism for yourself and the community.

Plant City's population is booming. Some residents fear their home will lose its small-town charm

The Plant City Downtown District, which includes some of the town's older, historical buildings.
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF
By 2050, Plant City’s population and the surrounding unincorporated area are expected to increase from roughly 60,000 to more than 150,000.

Studies show Plant City and nearby communities will increase from 60,000 residents to more than 150,000 by 2050. Some residents embrace the change, but others who have spent their lives there say the town's history is key to maintaining its original identity.

Plant City, and other parts of eastern Hillsborough County, are growing at rapid pace.

A recent study published from Plan Hillsborough estimates Plant City’s population will double by 2050.

And while some residents are excited about the growth, others are concerned about the impact it will have on their once-small town.

Billy Williams is a retired strawberry farmer, but is still pretty active in his brother’s fields.

He’s lived in Plant City all his life, on the same plot of land that he farmed.

Billy Williams standing in front of a strawberry farm with a blue jacket on
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF
Williams says he loved the town he’s spent his life in. When he goes to a restaurant or a grocery store, he stills always sees someone he knows.

“I didn't take agriculture in high school,” Williams said. “Because I got all the 'ag' I wanted when I got out of school.”

Williams says he loved the town he’s spent his life in. When he goes to a restaurant or a grocery store, he still always sees someone he knows.

“My wife knows it'll take me from 20 minutes to an hour and a half [to go to the store],” Williams said. “It depends on how many people I see. If the meal is getting cold, I've kept the conversation short.”

“It's something I really don't want to see. But it is going to happen and there's no way to slow it down. There's just too many people.”
Billy Williams, retired Plant City farmer

But Williams — like many other longtime residents in Plant City — have noticed changes, including the steady rise in traffic and development, like the street right in front of his home.

“And I've been driving a tractor down the road and they had to slow down and wait for us to get by so they can pass, and they've actually flipped me off,” Williams said. “I'm just driving a tractor, doing what I've always done.”

Growth prompts longtime residents to leave

Williams says extra traffic, and the high selling price for agricultural land in the area, have led to some farmers leaving Plant City and shifting their operations elsewhere in the state.

And growth, just like the traffic, looks like it’s here to stay. That’s according to the study published by Plan Hillsborough. By 2050, the population in Plant City and the surrounding unincorporated area is expected to increase from roughly 60,000 to more than 150,000.

That would account for nearly 20% of the county population.

Mural located in downtown Plant City, with an arch to a small park and benches
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF
Researchers say Plant City’s current affordability and proximity to other big cities make it ripe for development.

Specific quadrants of the city will also see different levels of growth. The southeast quadrant is expected to see an over 200% rise in its population, while the northeast quadrant would see a 130% climb.

Yassert Gonzalez, a managing researcher with Plan Hillsborough, says Plant City’s current affordability and proximity to other big cities make it ripe for development.

“It's not going to become Tampa by 2050 … but at the same time, don't sleep on Plant City,” Gonzalez said. “Don't sleep on what's happening there and how it fits into the new economy.”

Plus, sitting along the I-4 corridor makes Plant City a key location for industry.

"We are bisected by the I-4 corridor,” said Robyn Baker, the planning and zoning coordinator for Plant City. “So as far as that's concerned, non-residential development is enticed for that reason alone. It's the fastest-growing non-residential corridor in the state.”

And Plant City isn’t the only part of East Hillsborough County that is expected to see growth. Apollo Beach, Balm, and Thonotosassa are some other areas that will also see positive shifts in population, according to other research from Plan Hillsborough.

“This isn't a puppy that you get that you can quickly say ‘well, you know…’ It's not a small puppy anymore. Now this is a dog, I've got to take care of it, I gotta feed it, gotta walk it, got to make sure it's had all of his veterinary care. Communities are the same thing.”
Shelby Bender

Plant City still holds small-town charm

Newer Plant City residents, like Alberto Almaguer, see the great potential of the area. He moved there two years ago after trying — unsuccessfully — to find a place in Tampa that met his budget.

While he sees the growth here with new people moving in like him, Almaguer says the town still maintains a certain charm. 

“You get to meet your neighbors,” Almaguer said. “I lived in Tampa for years in different neighborhoods. I never met any of my neighbors. Here I know all my neighbors for like, three or four blocks out.”

Almaguer has gotten involved in the local community since moving to the area. He and some friends are even considering starting a writing club at the Plant City library.

While he understands why people could be nervous to see new waves of residents, he also says there’s no stopping it.

“Just embrace the change, because at the end of the day the other day, it's gonna knock on your door," Almaguer said. "And the only thing you can actually change is your attitude towards it.”

Plant City Manager Bill McDaniel standing in front of a large sign that reads the town's name
Sky Lebron
/
WUSF
McDaniel said he understands why some residents are concerned with what they believe is rapid growth, he said its integral to keeping the city trajecting upward. "If it's not growing, it's going to begin to wilt and wither," he said.

While there has been a jump in the residential population, Plant City’s city manager, Bill McDaniel, said the largest chunk of development is coming from commercial growth — including warehousing and other industries.

“If you broke down and just looked at ad valorem taxes as an indicator, the majority of our tax base is in the commercial sector and the minority is in the residential,” McDaniel said. “So pursuing that type of development path has been very beneficial to the city.

“By bringing in logistics, operations, and some of the other industrial-type stuff that we brought in, we've created those well-paying jobs right here in our own backyard.”

McDaniel said he understands why some residents are concerned with what they believe is rapid growth, he said it's integral to keeping the city trajecting upward.

“I'm one of those [concerned] people,” McDaniel said. “I grew up here; this is my hometown. I don't want to see it lose the character, the charm and the quality of life that we all enjoy. But at the same time, growth is inevitable.

“If it's not growing, it's going to begin to wilt and wither.”

John Briggs sitting with a hand on his forehead as he talks into a microphone
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF
Briggs says he’s seen the population boom from his downtown art studio. Some of the art that he’s created, like murals he’s created that were demolished because of that growth.

He's seen the growth up-close

John Briggs is a longtime artist in Plant City. He and his family came to the area in 1974 while he was a visiting artist, and they liked it so much they stayed.

Art piece created by John Briggs that shows people descending into hell.
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF
Briggs has created many art pieces, like a mural that commemorated the town’s connection with trains, and dozens of other art sculptures and pieces.

He’s created art pieces, like a mural that commemorated the town’s connection with trains.

“People would drive up in their cars with a bucket of chicken, and sit in their cars like they were at a drive-in theater and watch me paint,” Briggs said. “So that's how I fit in.”

Briggs says he’s seen the population boom from his downtown art studio. Some of the art that he’s created, like murals he’s created that were demolished because of that growth.

“The wall was taken down primarily because a parking lot was put in down there,” Briggs said, speaking about one of his old pieces in Plant City. “And that was all worked out. And you know, that's the way things go a lot of times.”

Briggs says arts and culture, and historic building preservation are key to maintaining Plant City’s original identity.

“Maintain what we've got so far, and then further the idea of bringing young artists in to have a space to work,” Briggs said. “I think it would be a step in the right direction.”

And Shelby Bender will tell you, historic preservation is pretty hard to maintain.

Bender is the President of the East Hillsborough Historical Society. She was also born and raised in Plant City.

“After a while, you have to stop and say, ‘Well, what do we have left? What part of our history do we have left?’ ” Bender said.

Bender pointing at an old aerial view of Plant City
Sky Lebron
/
WUSF
Bender is the President of the East Hillsborough Historical Society. She was also born and raised in Plant City.

'Taking agriculture out of our equation'

Bender works out of the Historic 1914 Plant City High School building, one of the few original structures left.

She’s seen many of the town’s original structures get torn down for new developments and businesses. It concerns her for one of the town’s main industrial sectors — agriculture.

“This community was built on the backbone of agriculture and what we're doing to ourselves by developing those locations is we're taking agricultural out of our equation,” Bender said.

McDaniel said he believes agriculture will remain a strong industry in the city, despite the residential population rising and some moves from farmers.

“One thing that we're very hopeful of is that we can bring in some of this agricultural area and help them preserve it and keep it as agricultural area,” McDaniel said. “As long as that's a viable undertaking in this area, we want to see it thrive."

overlooking a large farm of strawberries on a big field
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF
Williams says extra traffic, and the high selling price for agricultural land in the area, have led to some farmers leaving Plant City and shifting their operations elsewhere in the state.

On top of preserving the historical values of the region, Bender said now that the town is seeing this rise in development, she hopes city leaders will be able to meet the needs of a larger population.

“This isn't a puppy that you get that you can quickly say ‘well, you know…’ It's not a small puppy anymore,” Bender said. “Now this is a dog, I've got to take care of it, I gotta feed it, gotta walk it, got to make sure it's had all of his veterinary care. Communities are the same thing.”

But for longtime Plant Citians like Bender, and retired strawberry farmers like Billy Williams, they know there’s only so much the city can do.

“It's something I really don't want to see,” Williams said. “But it is going to happen and there's no way to slow it down. There's just too many people.”

And he says that could mean strawberry farming, along with other forms of agriculture in the area, might not be the staple in the area that helped shape it.

“I think as long as Plant City takes a hard look at long-term growth, and they make sure that they're providing all of the goods and services that the people that they want to bring in … I do have optimism,” Bender said. “And I'm just hoping that everyone will follow through in the next couple of generations.”

As a host and reporter for WUSF, my goal is to unearth and highlight issues that wouldn’t be covered otherwise. If I truly connect with my audience as I relay to them the day’s most important stories and make them think about an issue past the point that I’ve said it in a newscast, that’s a success in my eyes.