Winter Haven, Fla., Looks to Smart City Opportunities

Until recently, Hiep Nguyen’s title had been chief information officer, but a community focus on new technology has prompted a shift, making him the smart city manager.

by Kevin Bouffard, The Ledger / January 29, 2019

(TNS) — Hiep Nguyen's new job title — smart city manager — reflects his mission of transforming Winter Haven, Fla., to a smart city.

"What a smart city is is less about technology than connecting residents to technology," Nguyen told about 150 people Friday at a State of the City presentation hosted by the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. "It's about creating an ecosystem."

The backbone of Winter Haven's smart city infrastructure is fiber optic cable, which has the ability to transmit data at high speed, said Nguyen, the smart-city manager. His title until recently was chief information officer.

Until the end of 2015, the city had installed about five miles of underground cable over 17 years, he said. The city installed the cable whenever the opportunity presented itself with new civic improvement construction projects.

By the end of this year, the city will have 50 miles of underground fiber optic cable, including 30 miles that was recently installed on U.S. 27, the corridor expected to contain the most future growth, Nguyen said.

It will also include seven miles of cable that will connect the city with the Polk County Sheriff's Office at 1891 Jim Keene Blvd., he added. That will put Winter Haven's fiber-optic system close to the city of Lakeland's with the prospect of a future connection.

The city already leases cable access to private companies, generating an annual income of $130,000, Nguyen said. And the new connections will create opportunities for future connections.

But the aim of the expanding network is to connect Winter Haven with all the major public-service providers in Polk, including the county and other local municipal governments and the public schools and colleges, he said.

The existing network already connects all city departments, which greatly enhances the sharing of data, making public services faster and more efficient, Nguyen said.

Once Winter Haven is connected with other public entities, it will enhance the city's ability to coordinate services, he added. That would become particularly important during hurricanes and other public emergencies, he added.

"It has the potential to transform how we provide public services, public safety and educational services," Nguyen told The Ledger. "It also will enable free enterprise."

Winter Haven took another step along the smart-city path with the recent introduction of a new mobile app for the Winter Haven Police Department.

The app, available on all platforms, gives mobile users access to the Winter Haven police website, said Chief Charlie Bird, who spoke at the chamber event.

That allows users to submit a crime tip, do a sex offender search, including an interactive map, and receive push notifications for live law enforcement activities in their neighborhoods, Bird said.

Bird also discussed the city's new Drone Response Unit, which enables it to conduct quicker aerial searches, he said. Previously, officers had to wait for another agency, such as the Polk Sheriff's Office, to dispatch a helicopter or other aerial vehicle.

The drones also improve searches in confined or covered area, such as woods and under a canopy or roof, Bird said.

Growth Management Director Merle Bishop also discussed the city's past and future growth.

The city's population has risen from 33,874 people in 2010 to an estimated 42,828 residents currently, Bishop said. It's expected to hit 52,000 residents in 2025 and 60,000 people in 2030.

Building permit activity has grown commensurately, he said.

The city issued 781 construction permits last year, an 11 percent increase from 2017 and more than quadruple the 180 permits issued in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession, Bishop said.

The value of the 2018 permits reached a record $320.5 million, a 78.6 percent increase compared with $179.5 million in 2017, he added.

Hotel growth has been particularly vigorous because of the success of the Legoland Florida theme park, Bishop said.

"We're seeing this area really take off," he said.

Bishop said he expects residential development to continue apace highlighted by a surge in downtown residential development.

"Soon we're going to hear about more residential developments coming downtown," he said.

Public Works Director M.J. Carnevale discussed improvements to the municipal roads, utilities and other infrastructure.

His department has already done extensive digital mapping across the city, including projections of how rainfalls of 2 to 10 inches would affect standing water on Winter Haven streets as a means of planning for stormwater drainage improvements. It is also doing a traffic master plan study.

"As the data gets better, we can increase the complexity of questions we ask of it," Carnevale said. "We can make more informed decisions."

©2019 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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