Apr 18, 2024 - News

Lakeland is America's fastest-growing metro. (And it's cool now.)

A view of a lake and several buildings from a paved walking path along the lake's perimeter.

A view of Lake Mirror and the Frances Langford Promenade on a recent afternoon. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios

I recently spent the day in downtown Lakeland and was delighted to find the "little mecca of cool" advertised by the city's Downtown Development Authority.

Why it matters: Lakeland is the fastest-growing metro area in the country, and its location along the ever-developing I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando makes it uniquely situated for continued growth.

The big picture: The Swan City has exploded from about 97,000 people in 2010 to an estimated 120,000 in 2022, per the most recent census figures. New and under-construction apartment buildings are scattered throughout the city.

  • The number of new businesses per year has been on the rise, too, culminating in last year's more than 400 openings, according to data from the city.
  • The city has positioned itself as an entrepreneurial hub with resources like Catapult Lakeland, a startup incubator across the street from the historic Frances Langford Promenade surrounding Lake Mirror in the city center.

Zoom in: With Chamber of Commerce president and longtime Lakelander Amy Wiggins as my tour guide, I saw a bustling downtown with plenty of restaurants, coffee shops and bars, including some surprisingly trendy spots:

If that all sounds outlandish to you, you probably spend less time on Instagram than me, and I commend you for that.

A modern interior featuring a black-and-white mural wall, a mid-century-modern style tan leather sofa and an open-plan kitchen with an island bar.
The inside of COhatch Lakeland. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios

What they're saying: "There's a feeling here, like something is going on," COhatch market lead Adriana Eraso told us when we ran into her at the space. She moved to the city from nearby Winter Haven four years ago.

  • Over street corn tartines at beloved local coffee shop chain Black & Brew, Wiggins told me she and her husband still go to Tampa sometimes, "but we know that we don't have to."
  • Abbey Caroline co-founder Joel Ogburn was skeptical when his daughter suggested relocating from Orlando, especially as a gay man. Eight months later, "I gotta say, I love this town," he said.
  • A big reason, they all say, is the kind and welcoming people.

Yes, but: Lakeland's transformation has had to grapple with darker chapters of its history, including a controversy over a Confederate monument that until recently towered over downtown's Munn Park.

The bottom line: If you're not considering a move there, Lakeland would be well worth a day trip, or at least a stop-off to catch a break from I-4.

A view of a downtown block through the arches of a park entrance.
The view of Main Street and Kentucky Avenue from Munn Park. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios

More things to do, eat and drink:

🌳 Take a stroll at Bonnet Springs Park or Hollis Garden.

πŸ›οΈ Admire iconic architecture on a Frank Lloyd Wright tour on Florida Southern University's campus.

πŸͺ“ Blow off some steam (and sip some locals-favorite milkshakes) at Ax-Caliber.

🎯 Find your inner child at Rec Room LKLD.

πŸŽ₯ Catch a show or movie at the historic Polk Theatre.

🍸 Sip craft cocktails at Revival.

πŸ˜‹ Indulge in the Latin-inspired menu at Nineteen61.

β˜• Grab breakfast and peruse work from local artists at Lakeland's original coffee shop, Mitchell's Coffee House.

🍺 Drink like a local at Swan Brewing.

πŸ• Grab a slice at Palace Pizza.

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