By Mike Ferguson
THE LEDGER
Published: Thursday, December 4, 2014 at 2:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 4, 2014 at 11:04 p.m.
LAKELAND | There wasn’t much room for any winter wonderland walking in downtown Lakeland Thursday night as tens of thousands came from across Polk County to get a glimpse of Lakeland’s 34th annual Christmas parade, co-sponsored by the city and the Junior League of Greater Lakeland.

Lakeland Christmas Parade
About 120 floats entered the parade that featured lights, high school marching bands, belly dancers, fireworks and even Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

Judd may be one of the area’s more recognizable figures, but the man who most in the crowd were hoping to see Thursday night had a long white beard and was draped in red.

“We want to see Santa,” said Michelle Ferguson, who came from Dover to see the parade with her husband, Tom, and 14-month-old granddaughter, Lyla.

“I’m going to say ‘hi’ to Santa,” said 4-year-old Reginald Green, of Winter Haven, who sat on top of his parents’ SUV with 6-year-old Raelyn Walker.

Gary and Diana Wilhite were there to support their son, Jonathan, a junior in JROTC at Kathleen High School marching in the parade for the third straight year.

“Hopefully, he doesn’t have to march behind the horses,” Gary Wilhite joked. “It looks like a good crowd, the weather is great and you couldn’t ask for a better night.”

Mookey Barrett of Auburndale was taking in his first Lakeland Christmas parade with his wife and son Trey. Barrett said he’d been to the Havendale Christmas parade, but the attendance did not compare.

“This is my first time, it’s amazing to see all these people here at one time,” he said.

Lauren Markowitz, 54, of Lakeland was there for a second straight year. Markowitz said she and her family moved here from Pennsylvania last year and really like the weather “It’s nice to be able to enjoy a Christmas parade without having to wear a coat,” she said, as the temperature hovered just below 70 degrees.

Suzanne Skinner, a fourth-grade teacher at Roberts Academy in Lakeland, said she’s been to the parade every year since moving to Lakeland from North Carolina 14 years ago.

“I like it because it has the small town feel to it,” Skinner said. “You have different parts of Lakeland that put it on and it’s just kind of a homegrown atmosphere.”

Ramona Davis, 64, of Lakeland said she’s been coming for even longer.

“I like the floats, the bands, all of it,” Davis said. “I’m still enjoying the parade.”

There were rumors of gunshots in the area during the parade, but Lakeland police said they could find no shooter nor victims.

WINNERS: Chick-fil-A (Judges’ Choice), Allen & Company (Best Pro Float), Southeastern University (Most Outstanding Band), Medulla Baptist Church (Best Theme Float), Family Martial Arts Center (Most Original), McKeel Academy Central (Best Youth/Educational Float), Amingos 4H (Best Community Float), Agnini Family Dental (Best Business Float).

Economists: Sunny 2015 Forecast for Polk, Florida
Interest rates and energy prices cited as reasons for optimism in Polk County
By John Ceballos
THE LEDGER
Published: Thursday, January 15, 2015 at 10:20 a.m.
RICK RUNION | THE LEDGER
ECONOMIST BRIAN WESBURY gives his outlook on the national economy Thursday during the 28th annual Economic Forecast Breakfast at The Lakeland Center.
LAKELAND | Polk’s business community woke bright and early Thursday morning to hear what 2015 has in store for the local economy.

Well, it was early, anyway.

Despite the dark, chilly morning outside The Lakeland Center at the start of the 28th annual Economic Forecast Breakfast, economists offered a sunny outlook for the coming year.

“I call this a ‘sunshine economy’ in terms of what’s going on in our great state,” said Tony Villamil, co-founder of the Washington Economics Group in Coral Gables. “We’re one of the leading states in payroll employment growth, population growth, and in terms of overall activities.

“Florida finished 2014 operating on all cylinders.”

Villamil was also one of the featured speakers at last year’s Economic Forecast Breakfast, which was once again presented by Allen & Company of Florida and the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce.

Keith Albritton, president and CEO of the Lakeland-based Allen & Company, said he went back and analyzed last year’s predictions and was pleased with the results.

“We like to see how our speakers have done with their prognostications and forecasts,” Albritton said. “I’m proud to say they scored an ‘A.’?”

Albritton said those predictions included a Florida economy that is growing and improving at a faster rate than the national economy, which Villamil estimates will expand about 3 percent this year.

“We predicted a good year for Florida, and it has happened,” Villamil said. In Polk, he noted the county’s placement along the I-4 high-tech corridor and referred to the area as an emerging higher-education hub, including the opening of the Florida Polytechnic University last fall. “This year will be even better relative to the economic environment here in the Lakeland-Winter Haven MSA ( metropolitan statistical area).”

“Various industries are increasing their payroll in the Lakeland region, and they’re pretty diversified, which means the economic recovery in the labor markets have taken hold.”

Villamil also cited continued low interest rates and declining energy prices as reasons for Polk County to be optimistic about 2015.

Brian Wesbury, a noted economist who regularly attends Lakeland’s Economic Forecast Breakfast, agreed that declining energy prices are a major factor.

“You can’t talk about the economy without talking about the price of oil,” said Wesbury, chief economist at Illionois-based First Trust Advisors LP. “Every penny decline in the price of gasoline saves consumers $3.785 million a day.

“If you take the $1.60 decline in gasoline, it’s $500 million a day that consumers will spend on something else.”

According to GasBuddy.com, the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. on Thursday was $2.08. Gas stations in Lakeland, Winter Haven and the rest of the state have seen prices dip below the $2-per-gallon mark this week.

Wesbury also praised the role entrepreneurs and technology play in the recovery of the economy.

“What saved our economy is what always has saved our economy, and that’s entrepreneurship,” Wesbury said.

He cited an exercise that involved taking a Radio Shack ad from 1991 and trying to buy all the components included in an iPhone 6.

“That phone would cost you $3,000 in 1991,” Wesbury said. “Today, you get it for $199 and a two-year plan.”

Wesbury said he has never seen a more vibrant period for forward-thinking entrepreneurs, and he thinks they will help continue to push the economy in the right direction.

“This recovery is real; it’s not caused by government, and it’s going to continue.”