Bartow, Florida

Bartow, Florida

A Destination of Oaks and Azaleas

BY TAMMY SEREBRIN

Bartow, Florida is well known as the county seat of Polk County, Florida; home of the Polk County Court House, the Clerk’s office of the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Florida, the State Attorney’s office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and the offices of the Polk County School Board.

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What is equally as important to know about Bartow is the plethora of activities that take place there and the pride its citizens and city officials have in their city. After visiting with George Long, Bartow City Manager, and Virginia Condello of the Bartow Chamber of Commerce, I learned so much more about the city. Long has served all of his public service life in Florida, beginning in Temple Terrace, then Palm Beach County, and Okeechobee County before coming to Bartow as City Manager five years ago. Condello has worked with the Chamber for nine years and is its Director of Communications.

With a population of approximately 17,000 and growing (with the annexation of 18,000 acres of former phosphate mining land owned by the Clear Springs Land Company), Bartow’s population is projected to increase to over 25,000 by 2015 and over 45,000 by 2030. Bartow was established in 1851 as the settlement of Fort Blount just west of current downtown Bartow.

The city, which was incorporated in 1882 and is dubbed the City of Oaks and Azaleas, has retained its small city heritage and its distinctive Southern culture with its historic landmarks such as the Old Polk County Courthouse (built in 1909), Bartow High School (originally Summerlin Institute), the oldest high school in the county, and the L.B. Brown House.

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Long is particularly enthusiastic about the recently established Bartow Citizens Academy which runs for six sessions April through June. “People are eager for information about their city. The Academy is meant to familiarize citizens and business people about Bartow. We worked with the Chamber to coordinate the application process and identified 25 people for the inaugural Academy.” The Academy is an interactive 6 session series on the municipal government to strengthen the relationship between citizens and local government. Citizens will acquire a better understanding of the city government and services, and city officials will gain insights into citizens’ priorities and needs. “We are paying attention to the types of questions received and, with the information the participants come away with, they will be able to inform others with a better understanding of the City’s services and programs.”

Long is proud of his record as Bartow’s City Manager so far. “There have been no lay-offs within the city government, but I have changed ways to provide needed services while reducing costs. I began making changes from day one (January 2008) by abolishing 40 positions through attrition and providing a higher level of service through team effort from elected officials on down.” He laments that “historic downtown still struggles” but is hopeful, saying, “The basis for one of the Community Development Agency’s (CRA) business development plans is designed to take into account the obstacles in Historic Downtown Bartow. There is talk about expanding downtown north to just north of SR 60; not displace downtown, but expand and compliment the downtown.” The goal is that people will have to drive through the expanded downtown when heading out on SR 60.” Historically, one had to drive through downtown to head east or west from Bartow.

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Potential for much growth is Polk State College’s Advance Technology Center for which plans are underway north of State Road 60, just east of downtown Bartow. A vital private/public and public/ public partnership, the center will be the permanent home of a workforce education center; a Corporate College training today’s workforce in the latest technology with the goal of streamlining the transfer of knowledge.

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What was going to be a quick stop into the Bartow Chamber of Commerce down the street from City Hall turned out to be a pleasant half hour talking to Virginia Condello. She said, “The city and the Chamber work well together; we are available for the city.” With Jeff Clark, the Chamber’s Executive Director, their goal is “marketing Bartow to make Bartow a destination.” Among City events, Main Street Bartow events, and Chamber events, there are plenty of reasons to go to Bartow for pleasure.

The first Annual Azalea Festival in April, just before Easter, was a great success. The annual Bloomin’ Arts Festival (the 42nd was held in March) fills blocks of downtown Bartow with artists, entertainment, food, a classic cars display and a Blooming Bike Ride.

Friday Fest is held every 3rd Friday of the month, put on by Main Street Bartow. In April the Bartow Relay For Life is one of the top American Cancer Society fundraising events in Florida.

The Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library which is considered by genealogists one of the best resources in the Southeast, and The Polk County Historical Museum with permanent and rotating exhibits about Florida and Polk County, are located in the old Polk County Courthouse.

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The L.B. Brown Heritage Festival takes place for three days in February on the grounds of the L.B. Brown House and Museum. Built by self-taught master carpenter Lawrence B. Brown, the nineroom, Victorian style, 1700 square foot two-story home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it is a museum honoring the contributions of African Americans to Florida history. The gathering celebrates the legacy of Brown who was born into a slave family and became a successful businessman after moving to Bartow in 1885.

For more information about Bartow’s government and activities, go to the City of Bartow and the Chamber of Commerce websites at www.cityofbartow.net and www.bartowchamber.com.

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