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Why Plant City, Fla., Is A Can't-Miss On The Campaign Trail

National political candidates love visiting Plant City, Fla. It's in a swing state, in a swing county. It's right off Interstate 4, so it's easy to get to on the way to Tampa or Orlando. Plus, it offers the perfect backdrop of Americana, with strawberry farms and a quaint downtown.

Then again, even if they didn't love it, University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus argues that candidates have to visit Plant City as a political necessity.

"If one [candidate] stops there and the other one doesn't, then the one that goes there will put it in their mailers: 'I stopped here, but my opponent did not,' " she says. Along the politically vital I-4 corridor, that alone may be worth it, strawberry milkshakes (from the popular Parkesdale Farm Market) or not.

When they visit Plant City, candidates will get off a bus, eat some barbecue and greet a great big crowd of voters. But there's more to see in today's Plant City than a tight campaign schedule is likely to allow, as we discovered while visiting for our First and Main series.

Plant City started in 1885 as a cotton town and a stop on the South Florida Railroad. You can still see the historic homes from that time along the brick streets of the downtown. Later, the town drew migrant workers to pick strawberries and other crops, and you can still see stores and health clinics that cater to them.

Now the city is changing again. As recently as 1980, it was home to about 17,000 people. Today, it's more than double that. Along with political candidates, the interstate has brought new residents who live in housing developments and shop at the city's Super Wal-Mart.

Michael Sparkman can speak to Plant City's transformation. His roots in the city go back five generations, and he grew up in the heart of downtown.

"We used to go down the road, and we would just about wave at every car. We just knew everybody." Now, he says, "I went to Fred's Southern Kitchen Sunday for lunch — my wife and I — and I was amazed that I knew probably 10 people there total."

This is especially significant since Sparkman is Plant City's mayor.

Even as the city has grown, Sparkman insists it has avoided becoming completely urbanized — caught up in Tampa's sprawl. Strawberry farming is still a huge and growing part of the economy.

"We've liked our growth until this point. It's been good, effective, and it's been conservative," he says. "I think we'll still want to be independent and conservative going forward."

For the mayor, going forward involves courting technology companies to come to Plant City, and training workers to be able to fill those jobs. Although several big businesses left during the recession, things seem to be picking up again. The mayor says the city hopes to see $200 million in new construction over the next five years.

If anything, all of this makes Plant City an even more important stop for campaigning politicians, MacManus says.

"It's still got the nostalgic feel of old Florida, but the economic realities of a changing Florida, with more people moving there and industry diversifying," she says. "It's kind of a nice blend of the old and the new."

Plant City's distinctive blend starts with a strawberry shake. The rest of the ingredients are constantly changing, which will challenge the politicians who want to capture votes here.

Selena Simmons-Duffin is a production assistant for Morning Edition.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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