Communication Builds Our Community

Multiple Questions Raised About $1.2 Million City-Funded Incubator

A "business incubator" operating under a three-year, $1.2 million contract approved by the Lake Wales City Commission appears to be operating in violation of several laws, a five-month-long LakeWalesNews.net investigation has determined.

Among questionable practices identified within a web of interconnected businesses are business activity lacking county and city occupational permits, apparent violations of Florida's registered agent law, plagiarism, faked testimonials, and a claim of a non-existent professional license.

Courtesy City of Lake Wales

Charles Young, Frank Cornier, and Derrick Blue celebrate at the ribbon-cutting of the BizLINC center.

Florida Development Corp., Inc. (FDC) presented themselves as experts willing to assist others in setting up new businesses. The for-profit company received the initial funding to set up the incubator at 225 Lincoln Avenue nearly two years ago, but FDC has not applied or paid for either city or county occupational licenses, a violation of law.

Investigation Initiated

The Polk County Tax Collector's office checked their records and found no tax receipts related to the businesses, and began a check seeking clarification on their tax compliance status. The lack of a county business tax receipt could potentially result in penalties and fines for the several businesses involved. Is was left unexplained why the member businesses were not advised by their incubator coaches to obtain the county and city permits.

FDC arrived in Lake Wales from Tampa to build an affordable home under a Community Redevelopment Agency program, and later proposed the incubator to stimulate business in the Northwest Neighborhood, eventually receiving the contract despite a lack of direct experience in the field.

That the purported training group has failed to conclude the basic step of obtaining a license has raised concerns about the competency of the organization. That concern is multiplied by the fact that few of the other businesses they are tutoring have been licensed. Both city and county occupational licenses are required by law.

Other unlicensed businesses operating from the incubator address include BizLinc, LLC, The LINCubator, LLC, and BluePrint Ventures, LLC, all operated by COO Derrick Blue.

Others are Inner Drive Investments, LLC, Aquarius Process Service LLC, The Creativ3 Co, LLC, and Girls Leave a Mark, Inc.

Courtesy City of Lake Wales

A crowd of city commissioners, staff, and business leaders gathered for the ribbon cutting of the BizLINC incubator in 2023 after the remodeling of the former dental office at 225 Lincoln Avenue.

According to the tax collector's website, after 150 days "businesses that fail to comply are in criminal violation of county local business tax provisions, which is a second-degree misdemeanor offense subject to possible criminal prosecution, and additional non-compliance penalties."

County compliance officer Shawn Wyatt reported that he had spoken to a representative at BizLINC who denied that the latter three are located there, even though they are listed by the Florida Division of Corporations as operating from that address.

According to the Division of Corporations, two businesses at the 225 address are operated by Derrick Blue, who is the chief operating officer of FDC. Blue was removed as executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan in an Oct. 2022 corporate filing, a few months after securing the contract with the City of Lake Wales.

Blue is also listed as COO of The LINCubator, LLC, BizLINC, LLC, and is listed as "AMB" of Blueprint Ventures, which is headed by his wife, Melanie Blue.

The website for BizLINC, LLC, mybizlinc.com, includes "terms and conditions" obviously plagiarized from Catapult Lakeland, a successful business incubator. An email link on that site still refers email to Catapult, a fact that surprised a representative there. The website at fdc-inc.org also plagiarizes a story published in LakeWalesNews.net crediting an individual identified as "cyoungjr0".

Incorrect information also appears on the BizLINC Facebook page. A attempt to obtain comment from the group using a phone number found there led the News to a recorded message at a marketing company in West Palm Beach, while other emails provided lead to a non-configured server.

A testimonial page included on mybizlinc.com uses stock commercial photographs of individuals portrayed as clients praising their "success" with the incubator. LakeWalesNews.net could find no record of "Michelle Jones, Cosmetologist, Cordry Phipps, Designer, or Mindy West, Consultant" associated with any business at 225 Lincoln Avenue.

Sourced from BizLINC newsletter

A gallery of business startup owners sent in the BizLINC newsletter includes none of the individuals used to create the "testimonials" on the fdc-inc.org website.

Florida law states that corporations "shall cause the designated registered agent to keep the designated registered office open from at least 10 a.m. to 12 noon each day except Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays" to accept service of legal documents such as lawsuits or summons.. The registered agent of The LINCubator is Young and Sons Tax Accounting, listing an address found to be a UPS mailbox in Spring Hill, FL. in violation of Florida statutes. Young and Sons Tax Accounting is listed as the registered agent for19 businesses at that address.

Charles Young is listed as the chief financial officer of BizLINC. A website for Young and Sons includes a biography of Charles Young Jr. that claims he is a Certified Public Accountant, but he is not licensed as a CPA by the State of Florida.

The registered agent for FDC is BizLINC, which in turn also lists Young and Sons Tax Accounting, but at the 225 Lincoln Avenue location.

The FDC contract with the city requires them to report their progress in assisting new business start-ups on a quarterly basis. A public records request for the progress reports only turned up a single-page chart which omitted details but included future projections. The incubator has received frequent praise from members of the city commission, who have mentioned on-site visits to discuss the operations there.

An attempt to reach officials of FDC through 863-777-2890, the number posted on their website at fdc-inc.org, led to a recording stating that the call had been forwarded to "main number voice mailbox." The email addresses provided on their website also failed to reach them.

City Officials React

Upon learning of the LakeWalesNews.net investigation, Commissioner Keith Thompson expressed surprise, saying that "this is disturbing...especially considering the amount of money directed to it. I sincerely hope that they have a good explanation. The goal is...aiding the start of business and economic activity" in the Northwest community."

City Manager James Slaton also called the news "disturbing" and said that the city would "definitely look into it."

Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson said he preferred to "hear all the facts and hear from" FDC officials..."I'll wait until then to offer further comment."

Messages left for Mayor Jack Hilligoss and Commissioner Daniel Williams received no response by the time of publication. Commissioner Danny Krueger refused to speak with LakeWalesNews.net and hung up the phone.

The email address, [email protected], which is listed on the website and email address, does not function, preventing applicants from reaching the organization. The phone number connects to a business in West Palm Beach apparently responsible for the website. The same incorrect information is displayed on the BizLINC Facebook page.

A recent newsletter from BizINC stated that they have 16 member businesses who have helped to create "over 40 new jobs,that have generated hundreds of thousands in new revenue." They include businesses located in Miami, Brandon, Tampa. Others list no address. Several are tax-exempt non-profit organizations.

According to published records, Derrick Blue has been involved in 51 different registered corporations, but 41 are now listed as inactive. Blue was listed as president of God's Dynasty Productions, Inc. and Activ8 International Fellowship, Inc. He and Melanie were invited to speak at a church led by Mayor Jack Hilligoss.

In a video presentation posted on the church's YouTube page, Blue stated that "We have planned Providence Launch Business Incubator and launched our initial Christian-owned and Christ-centered businesses. I...there are plenty of people who are not going to college and they just need to trade through Providence trade and then of course through Providence launch where kingdom-minded entrepreneurs can find a place to grow their companies."

 
 

Reader Comments(1)

Nonanita writes:

From his reaction of hanging up the phone, it would appear that Commissioner Danny Kreuger is afraid to speak to the press. One also has to wonder why Mayor Hilligoss and Commissioner Daniel Williams are so busy that they have been unable to return the investigative reporter's phone calls. When elected, both of them that said that their pastoral duties would leave them enough time to serve the people of Lake Wales in their official capacities. Surely a phone call to comment about this is in order. Thanks to lakewalesnews.net for their investigative reporting.

 
 
 
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