SEFFNER — Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist recalls when Seffner was just the halfway point between Tampa and Plant City.
It was 1979 and as a University of South Florida student, he often visited his girlfriend in the sleepy 3.8-square mile town where her parents had long grown strawberries, oranges and tomatoes.
Now Seffner appears to be awakening. The widening of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard., over the past few years has helped spark development along the town's main thoroughfare between Williams and Kingsway.
"I remember what Seffner was like in the late '70s and early '80s," Crist said. "And I've watched it change over the years."
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen will soon open on the former site of the 11-Mile Tavern just a few yards down from where parent company Restaurant Brands International opened a new Burger King a couple weeks ago. In between that stretch on MLK, Zaxby's plans to open in November or December on the south side opposite the Walmart.
And Bay Life Church works on expansion plans for the 5-acre lot where First Baptist Church of Mango used to be located.
"The speed of growth and development are unpredictable and sometimes inexplicable," said Michael Brody, developer and majority owner of the licensing group operating the Zaxby's. "Development deals in Hillsborough County can sometimes be difficult and time consuming, therefore developers need to plan accordingly making sure not to over extend themselves.
"That being said, MLK is a healthy thoroughfare with very healthy traffic counts and a good mix of current and future residential and commercial mix so it makes sense that future development is sure to follow."
Crist points to four main factors for the recent growth that also includes a Save-A-Lot, Planet Fitness and Washed Up Car Wash: a stronger economy, more people with disposable incomes, better infrastructure and a need for affordable living. He said that with the likes of large employers Amazon, Bass Pro and USAA coming to the SouthShore and Brandon area, people have to search farther from Tampa to find affordable home sites.
"Seffner is just far enough out but close enough in where you can get the best of both worlds," he said. "And it creates the perfect storm for development."
Certainly Brody sees opportunity with his impending Zaxby's. Even though he may be launching a bit of a "chicken war" against the incoming Popeyes and the long-established Kentucky Fried Chicken, he noted that given Seffner residents an option to Brandon's busy roads has to be a plus for all the establishments.
"The more alternatives available to the community the better, it's not a zero sum game," Brody said. "And with such high traffic counts, we can all survive and thrive while providing a viable alternative to State Road 60, which can sometimes get congested and difficult to navigate."
For Tom Eichem, executive pastor at Bay Life church, the hope is to mix mission and market on its property. He said the church is constructing a 15,000 square foot chapel on three acres at 11619 E MLK Boulevard. Church construction should be complete in 1½-2 years.
Eichem also said the church sold the front corner two acres to a developer who will build a WaWa.
"The hope is that somebody looking for a neighborhood community church would give us a try, said Eichem indicating The Chapel attendance has grown from 15 to 60 people in two years. "Our goal is to be a blessing in the community full-time."
Family Sunday service meets at 10:45 a.m. and a temporary location will be in a few weeks where Anytime Fitness used to be in the Winn Dixie plaza. Visit baylife.org/chapel.
Just around the corner at Williams Road and Broadway, Metropolitan Ministries is addressing affordable housing needs with the help of a $400,000 investment from JPMorgan Chase it recently received. The nonprofit will use the funds to help build 112 new affordable housing units in the greater Seffner area.
Since 2012, the number of families receiving housing through Metropolitan Ministries' programs has grown tenfold from 43 to more than 450 in Tampa Bay.
"We have witnessed an explosion of need even as the economy soars and unemployment rates drop," said Tim Marks, President and CEO of Metropolitan Ministries. "Our monthly number of assessments for onsite residential programs has doubled and peaks at 300 families a month. The number one reason? Lack of affordable housing for the working poor and families on fixed income."
Despite the growth, Crist doesn't see the community losing its inner value.
"What you're finding is the metamorphosis where Seffner was once a sleeping little quasi ag-suburbia, to what is now becoming more of a small-town suburbia," said Crist, pointing out that Hillsborough County has the fastest growing economy and lowest unemployment in the state. "I don't think Seffner will ever lose its charm."
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Contact Eric Vician at email@example.com.