The city of Lake Wales sits along what is often referred to as the backbone of the Florida peninsula, and now it looks like Lake Wales is also the heart of the state – with an asterisk.
Once a decade, the U.S. Census Bureau designates a location in each state as the population center, or the balancing point for weights of equal height representing all people living in the state. For the 2020 census, Lake Wales is the closest city to this central Florida point.
“So it’s a statistical price, I guess,” said Jennifer Nanek, Lake Wales town clerk and resident for 41 years. “Of course, what I would prefer us to be is, like, the real center of the state: ‘Yeah, everybody comes here, because it’s the best place to be.'”
The exact location is actually closer to Lake Buffum, an unincorporated area west of Lake Wales. The Census Bureau places the population center near the intersection of Lake Buffum Road and Alturas Babson Park Cutoff Road.
Lake Buffum is best known in Polk County as the point where hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne intersected in six weeks during the memorable storm year of 2004.
The “average population center” is 2.8 miles east of Alturas, another unincorporated “census-designated place” with a population of approximately 4,000.
The new location is 1.1 miles north of the population center designated after the 2010 census, suggesting that Florida’s population has grown more densely northward over the past decade.
The geographic center of Florida is in Hernando County, about 70 miles northwest of Lake Wales, according to the US Geological Survey. The difference reflects the fact that the state’s population is heavily concentrated in southeast Florida: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties have nearly 6.2 million residents out of a total population of the state of 21.5 million.
Nanek said the Census Bureau designation has been a minor topic of conversation in the town of about 16,000 people.
“I’ve seen discussions about it on social media, sort of saying, ‘Yeah, we’re the center of the state, absolutely,'” she said. “I don’t think most people know what that really means, but we’re glad to get credit for something.”
The town sits along the Lake Wales Ridge, a geological protrusion that stretches north through the center of the peninsula for approximately 150 miles. The ridge, offering the highest elevations on the peninsula, is a relic of the sand islands that existed when most of what is now Florida was covered in water about two million years ago.
Lake Wales Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson said he was unaware that the Census Bureau placed Florida’s population center so close to the city.
“I don’t think that’s particularly something that sets the community apart,” Gibson said. “It’s nothing that we won. We did nothing to cause this. So it’s just a curiosity of the census, I guess.
But both Gibson and Nanek said Lake Wales deserved attention for many other reasons.
“It’s a place where people want to come and start their business, come to live, come raise their families, come to retire, come vacation here or go sightseeing,” Nanek said. “Lake Wales can very easily be representative of all that is great about Central Florida or Florida in general. Perfect weather. We have nice people. We have great things to see and do. We are not too far from any place. Yes, we are the center of everything in Florida. Absoutely.”
Lake Wales is known for Bok Tower Gardens, a 92 year old attraction; Spook Hill, a topographic fluke at which vehicles appear to roll upwards; and Warner University. The city is still surrounded by citrus groves, although the industry is declining statewide.
Gibson moved to Lake Wales on May 15, 1966, when the population was around 8,000, about half of what it is today. He came to look for a job in a law firm but also said he was attracted by the charms of the city.
“Well, I think the main thing we pride ourselves on here is kind of a sense of community,” said Gibson, 85. “The hallmark of the city is the quality of non-profit organizations that support the community. It’s unique.
Many people who live outside the city limits consider themselves Lake Wales residents, Gibson said. There is no further incorporated area east of Lake Wales, extending to the Osceola County line.
The 2020 census measured a population growth of 14.4% over the previous decade. Like many cities in Central Florida, Lake Wales is also experiencing an increase in population.
“And now we’re trying to smartly manage the growth that’s just rolling down Highway 27,” Gibson said. “And we have, oh, something like 15 or 16 subdivisions that are in various stages of adoption. And our first concern is, we don’t want to be part of anything like Broward County. So the concern about urbanization is widespread now.
The city is in the process of implementing its Lake Wales Connected plan, a multi-year plan to revitalize the town center and expand walkable areas in the North West district.
Nanek, whose family moved to Lake Wales when he was 3, said locals hoped the population expansion would not alter the town’s laid-back atmosphere.
“People’s main concern is traffic,” she said. “Our traffic models are struggling to keep up with growth as it is, let alone what’s to come. One thing people love about living in Lake Wales is that you can walk anywhere in 10 minutes. With all these new developments to come, it could be a little more complicated.
Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.