BROOKSVILLE — At the December meeting of the Hernando County Metropolitan Planning Organization, Toby Gray, general manager of the Wal-Mart Distribution Center on Kettering Road, delivered some good news about his company and its future in Hernando.
Gray told MPO members that Wal-Mart's plans over the next five years are of a grand enough scale that county and state transportation officials will need to take a serious look at how to handle increases in vehicle traffic on the county's east side.
The numbers that Gray offered up point to an optimistic future both for Wal-Mart and the county. By 2018, the corporation expects to add 31 locations to the 103 stores the 1.5 million-square-foot distribution center currently services in Central Florida. And that will mean increased truck traffic on the well-traveled stretch of State Road 50 that connects the county with Orlando.
But perhaps more important, said county business development director Michael McHugh, is that Wal-Mart sees its Hernando operation as a vital link to its growth plans.
"Year after year, the Brooksville facility is consistently among the highest-performing Wal-Mart distribution centers in the country when it comes to efficiency," McHugh said. "To me, that's a reflection on our workforce. That's always great news for us and our local workforce."
As the county's largest private employer, Wal-Mart has steadily increased its local workforce, despite the sputtering economy in recent years. According to Gray, the distribution center's overall activity grew about 15 percent in 2012. The facility added about 130 employees to its existing 1,000-member workforce.
And while Gray said there are no plans to increase the physical size of the facility, the company continues its growing focus on online sales, which are handled out of the Hernando distribution center.
Wal-Mart originally planned to build its first Florida distribution center in Winter Haven in the early 1990s. But residents there opposed the move and accused the city of Winter Haven of improperly approving land-use changes for Wal-Mart, according to a lawsuit filed at the time.
During the delay, Hernando County made a successful play for the center. An executive from the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative called Bentonville, Ark., to ask Wal-Mart executives to consider property that WREC owned on Kettering Road in the Ridge Manor area.
The County Commission rezoned the site for the distribution center, lined up $2-million in state grants to pave and widen nearby roads and installed water and sewer lines to accommodate the company.
Although much of the land surrounding the distribution center remains empty due to ownership issues, McHugh said the county continues to actively court other corporations looking to follow Wal-Mart's lead.
That effort was helped last year when the state Department of Transportation announced it would accelerate its plan to widen Interstate 75 to six lanes from Florida's Turnpike south through the Tampa Bay area, including a stretch through Hernando County.
"Other companies already know what Wal-Mart has accomplished," McHugh said. "The door is wide open for that kind of success."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.